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Stolen monument causes uproar

In 1937, Italian troops serving in Ethiopia were ordered by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini to ferry to Rome a sacred monument to mark his ascendancy to power fifteen years later. The 1,700-year-old, artefact has provoked a fierce verbal war between Italy and Ethiopia.
Matthias Muindi

Even after indicating that it is committed to fighting the illicit trade of stolen historical and cultural artefacts, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) will not pressure Italy to return a 1,700-year-old monument stolen from Ethiopia 65 years ago.

The reason, said the UN agency, is that that the return of the Axum Obelisk carted away by Italian troops in 1937 is a "political issue" rather than a conservation one. "I am not in a position to say anything definite," UNESCO's Director General, Koichiro Matsuura said in Axum on January 9. He explained that he "needed to know much more about what has developed between the two countries." Ironically, Matsuura, a former president of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee, also asked the Ethiopian government to teach its citizens about the conservation of the country's seven UNESCO sites.

For their part, scholars, government officials, and ordinary Ethiopians have been united in their demand that Italy be compelled to honour numerous agreements requiring it to return an artefact more famous than its birthplace, Axum, a northern Ethiopian town that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in September 1980.

To the Ethiopians, Rome's continued detention of the obelisk smacks of revenge for the time Ethiopia defeated invading Italian troops in 1935. Indeed, some Ethiopians argue that Rome's reluctance to hand back the monument is meant to readdress that defeat. "The defeat still haunts them [Italians]," an Ethiopian diplomat told AFRICANEWS. "That is why they don't want to return the Obelisk." Whatever the case, Ethiopians see the obelisk as not just a powerful tourism gem, but also a priceless definition of a golden period in the country's ancient past.

Ethiopia is one of the four African countries that hold a third of the continent's 74 listed sites. Ethiopia houses seven sites, as do Algeria and Morocco. Tunisia has eight World Heritage Sites. In Ethiopia, apart from the ancient town of Axum located in Tigray State near the border of Eritrea, the other sites are: Lalibella's rock-hewn churches; Simen National Park; Fassil Chebbi royal ruins in Gondhar; the Lower Valley of Awash; the Lower Valley of Omo; and the ancient ruins of Tiya in the south.

But it is Axum that stands out; the Obelisk has only added its stature and mystique. Famed by local legend as the birthplace of the Queen of Sheba, Axum also hosts a copy of the Biblical Ark of Covenant, Tabot, which was recently returned from Scotland. As the capital of the pre-Christian Kingdom of Axum, the town is valuable to archaeologists keen to investigate a kingdom that ruled central, eastern, and northern Ethiopia for nearly a millennium up to the 13th century.

Enduring symbols of ancient Axum are the massive obelisks and stele, which held religious meanings. Though referred as obelisks, steles are not obelisks in the strict sense of the word, since an obelisk is a four-sided pillar shaped like a pyramid. Steles are upright, engraved slabs used to mark graves. The Obelisk stands 24 metres high and was carved from solid granite around 300 AD, shortly after the arrival of Christianity. But unlike the other obelisks, which are just blank granite sheets, it was carved to look like a multi-storeyed building with windows, doors, and even door handles.

Archaeologists are still unsure how the Obelisk was transported to the capital from a quarry more than two miles away. Italian troops acting on orders from the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini had no trouble ferrying it. They cut it into three parts and carted it to Rome, where Mussolini wanted it to mark fifteen years of his "March to Rome" that brought him to power in 1922. Since then, the Obelisk has graced the spot where Mussolini indicated it should be erected, Rome's central Piazza di Porta Capena.

For over fifty years, the two countries have engaged in inconclusive discussions concerning the Obelisk's return. The reasons for Rome's reluctance to return it have varied, but some have explained that Italy wouldn't want to set a precedent of returning cultural and historical artefacts stolen by former colonial powers. One consequence of that Western art galleries and museums would be emptied of some of their most prized artefacts. It would also be an acknowledgement of the buccaneer trait of colonialism.

But retaining the Obelisk isn't a safe bet, either. It could open the Italian government to legal action or could ignite a diplomatic war by aggrieved parties. Already, a British member of the European Parliament, Richard Bolfe, demanded that the legislature orders Italy and other guilty countries to return all looted artefacts.

It is still too early to know the outcome of such a call, but it strengthens the Ethiopian case and demands by petitioners who have not tired of quoting international agreements dealing with the Obelisk. These include: an April 1997 pact between Italy and Ethiopia that stipulated the Obelisk should be returned before the end of 1997; and a 1947 pact between Italy and the United Nations, which demanded that Rome repatriate all property looted from Ethiopia within 18 months. According to Professor Richard Pankhurst of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University, Article XXXVII of the latter agreement signed on September 15, 1947 covered the Obelisk.

But even after having signed these documents and being pressured by the Ethiopians, Rome hasn't given in. Instead government officials have been issuing conflict statements on the issue. On December 29 last year, Italy's Deputy Minister for Culture, Vittorio Sgarbi, repeated remarks he had made five months earlier that Italy would not return the artefact and threatened to resign if the Obelisk was returned.

"Italy cannot give its consent for a monument well kept and restored to be taken to a war zone and leave it there with the risk of having it destroyed," he said. Sgarbi added that the proximity of Axum to the Eritrean border area, which up to last year was the scene of a bloody two-year war between the two countries, guarantees a sure destruction of the monument since Ethiopia lacks the money and other technical resources to adequately safeguard or maintain it. The statements contradicted the promise made by Italy's Under-Secretary for State, Alfredo Mantica, to Ethiopia's Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin in July last year that Italy would return the monument. That was also what Italy's Deputy Foreign Minister Signor Rino Serri said in November 2000, when the Ethiopian National Committee for the Return of the Obelisk demanded its return.

Enraged Ethiopian officials have dismissed Sgarbi's comments as being "unconstructive and damaging." According to Ethiopia's Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Culture: "The time has come for Italy to be clear on its intentions, whether Ethiopia is going to get its Obelisk back or not."

Rome has yet to make its intentions clear. But even with its evasiveness, it is significant to note that a team made up of eminent professors of engineering and archaeology has been appointed to survey how to transport the monument. Headed by Professor Giorgio Croci, who in the past has researched the reconstruction of the floor of Rome's Coliseum, the strengthening of the leaning Tower of Pisa, and the restoration of the dome of St. Francis Assisi's Basilica after it was damaged by an earthquake in 1997, the team has proposed that the Obelisk be cut into pieces to ease the transportation and maintain its features. The professors have already handed their recommendations to the Italian Foreign Affairs Ministry. Ethiopia, which joined UNESCO in 1955, has already warned that it might seek an international, independent arbitrator if Italy does not act this time.

Then there are the petitioners who have stated that they will not accept anything less than restitution. Already, Prof. Pankhurst, together with a colleague, Prof. Andreas Eshete, has written a petition to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on the issue. "We feel the time has come, under Your Excellency's leadership, to redeem Italy's reputation by honouring treaty obligations without further delay," says the petition, a copy of which was obtained by AFRICANEWS.

Another petition signed last year included some of Ethiopia's prominent intellectuals and politicians such as the late historian Tekle Tsadik Mekuria, playwright Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin, former Prime Minister Mikael Imru, and ex-Foreign Affairs Minister Dejazmach Zewde Gabre-Sellassie. About 15,000 residents of Axum have also pleaded with Rome, pointing that they have already prepared a site to accommodate the Obelisk if it is returned. Not left out is the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, His Holiness Abuna Paulos V who has sent a letter to Pope John Paul II asking him to put pressure on Rome. According to media reports in Addis Ababa, this is the only recorded case in which an Ethiopian Patriarch has addressed a Roman Pontiff since the early 17th century, indicating the weight of the matter.

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