ATHENS, Greece (AP) — The first of the Acropolis' ancient sculptures was gingerly plucked from the top of the Parthenon temple and successfully transferred Sunday to a new museum at the foot of the hilltop citadel.
Culture Minister Michalis Liapis called the meticulously choreographed, 90-minute operation — the first of many in coming weeks — a "historic event of global significance."
Over the next few months, 4,500 antiquities, mostly marble sculptures dating to the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., will be shifted into the new Acropolis Museum 400 yards away.
On Sunday, crews in three cranes moved a 2.3-ton section of the Parthenon frieze: a 160-yard-long strip sculpted in relief with some 360 human and 250 animal figures from a religious procession.
Liapis called the transfer "both awe-inspiring and deeply moving. For the first time after 25 centuries, the sculptures are being transferred to the new Acropolis Museum."
Supervising engineer Costas Zambas said the move went off without a hitch, and faster than expected. He said crews had decided not to carry out any transfers if winds are higher than 24 mph — and Sunday was a windy day.
"But everything went off like a dream, totally safely," he said.
The antiquities — insured for $567 million — will be wrapped in padded harnesses and packed into styrofoam-filled boxes made of plywood and metal.
The Parthenon sculptures eventually will be exhibited on the top floor of the new, three-level museum with a view of the ancient temple. The works will be mounted in their original alignment on a model of the Parthenon's upper section.
Designed by U.S.-based architect Bernard Tschumi, the $182 million glass-and-concrete Acropolis Museum is expected to open in late 2008.
"The museum, which is empty in a sense, is now being populated — populated by those sculptures," said Tschumi, who attended the inaugural transfer Sunday.
Greek officials hope the gleaming new museum will boost the country's long-running campaign to wrest back the British Museum's collection of sculptures from the Parthenon.
The works were removed from the fifth century B.C. temple some 200 years ago — when Greece was still an unwilling member of the Ottoman Empire — by Scottish diplomat Lord Elgin and bought by the London museum, which has refused Greek demands for their repatriation.
Liapis said completion of the Acropolis Museum would repudiate British Museum officials' contention that Greece lacks a fitting venue to display all the Parthenon sculptures together.
Not everybody was happy Sunday. As the light-blue crate with its precious load dangled overhead, dozens of people gathered to protest the scheduled demolition of an Art Deco architectural gem — and its late 19th-century neighbor — that block the view of the Acropolis from the new museum.
A banner on the new museum's railings read: "Don't knock them down, we don't have enough of them."
The Parthenon was built between 447-432 B.C., at the height of ancient Athens' glory, in honor of Athena, the city's patron goddess.
It survived virtually intact — until a massive explosion caused by a Venetian cannon shot in 1687, when the Parthenon was in use as a gunpowder store by the Acropolis' Turkish garrison.
The old museum, built in the late 19th century, probably will be used for exhibitions on the Acropolis conservation program, the history of excavations on the site as well as drawings of the monuments by foreign travelers over the centuries.