ATHENS Greece opens the gates of the long-awaited Acropolis Museum on Saturday, hoping the modern glass and concrete building will help bring back the Classical Parthenon sculptures from Britain.
Dignitaries from around the world will attend the ceremony at the foot of the Acropolis, the epitome of the Golden Age of Athens, and visitors can begin touring some of the world's most stunning art for 1 euro ($1.40) from Sunday.
"This museum is a catalyst for the repatriation of the marbles that were plundered 200 years ago," Culture Minister Antonis Samaras told reporters.
Greece has campaigned for decades to get back the carvings removed from the Parthenon in 1806 by Lord Elgin, then British ambassador to the Ottoman empire. Among British Museum arguments was that Greece had no proper place to put them and the Acropolis Museum now addresses that.
"This is a symbol of modern Greece which pays homage to its past ... the duty of a nation to its cultural heritage," Samaras said.
The 14,000 square meter (150,000 square foot) museum will be able to host over 10,000 visitors a day.
Plagued by protests and bureaucratic delays for decades, the museum designed by architect Bernard Tschumi exploits natural light and boasts panoramic views of the Greek capital from almost every hall.
Planned to remind visitors of the 5th century BC monument visible across the street, its top floor layout mimics the main temple of the Acropolis, the Parthenon, whose 2,500-year-old sculptures are displayed with the missing pieces clearly marked.
"Tragic fate has forced them apart but their creators meant them to be together," museum director Dimitris Pantermalis told reporters on a sneak preview of the building.
White plaster moulds of Olympian gods, heroes and animals, fill in the gaps of slabs now in London. Some pieces have gone missing forever, victims of wars and natural disasters.
Visitors enter large halls and walk up a wide staircase, reminiscent of the monumental Propylaia entrance that ancient Greeks had to climb to reach their sacred temples.
The museum pays tribute to all ages of the Acropolis, with pre-Classical art works given prominence on the second floor, before reaching the Parthenon marbles. Below it, visitors walk over archaeological excavations, visible through glass floors.
(Editing by Charles Dick)