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Hand of God: Lightning prompts Italy to return stolen artefact

Late last month, Italy announced that it would return a priceless monument stolen from Ethiopia in 1937. This is after repeated calls by Addis Ababa that it does so. If indeed Italy is serious this time, it will not only bring to an end a saga that has been running for the past 65 years, but also return one of Ethiopia's most revered symbols.
Matthias Muindi

Call it divine intervention. It took a natural accident to solve a half-century dispute between Italy and Ethiopia over the stolen Obelisk of Axum. On May 25, hours after lightning struck the monument venerated by Ethiopians in Rome's Piazza di Porta Capena, near the Coliseum, Italian government officials loudly promised to return it. This is after more than 50 years of firm refusal to do so.

And in promising to return the Obelisk, Italy made a major political and diplomatic about-face, especially since Vittorio Sgarbi, the country's Deputy Minister for Culture, had last December vowed to resign if it was returned. Sgarbi opposed the return by claiming any movement could damage the 1,700-year-old monument.

But following the night thunderstorm, Sgarbi changed his tune. "This is indeed a good time to send the Obelisk back," Sgarbi told the British Broadcasting Corporation. "Now that it has already been damaged, we might as well give it back. It would be meaningless to restore it first and then send it back."

According to the BBC, huge chunks of rock had fallen from the top of the 160-tonne, 24-metre high granite Obelisk. Italian archaeology experts who assessed the damage told Rome's Prefect Emilio del Mese, the government's representative in the capital, that the damage was "considerable."

But even as Rome appeared ready to return the artefact, anger sizzled in Addis Ababa over the damage. In a terse statement, the country's Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture blamed Italy for the damage. "If the Italian Government heeded to the persistent plea since 1947 by the people and government of Ethiopia and again over the last 10 years for the return of the Obelisk, this wouldn't have happened," said the statement.

The Committee for the Return of the Axum Obelisk delivered a similar message by stating that the damage would not have been caused if the ancient stele had been returned. "Ethiopia has asked for the return of the monument for the last three years, but the Italian government does not have the will to return it. That is why we hold the Italian government responsible for the damage."

At press time, Rome had not indicated when, how, and in what state it would return the artefact. If and when it does, it will bring to an end a saga that has been running for the past 65 years when the monument was shipped to Italy in 1935. In that year, Italian troops, acting on orders from fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, cut the Obelisk into three parts and carted it to Rome, where Mussolini wanted it to mark 15 years of his "March to Rome" that brought him to power in 1922. Since then, and much to the chagrin of Ethiopians, it has graced the spot where Mussolini indicated it should be erected, Rome's central Piazza di Porta Capena.

But Ethiopians had not given up seeking the return of the Obelisk. During that time, scholars, government officials, and ordinary Ethiopians have united, demanding Italy's compliance with many agreements requiring it to return an artefact more famous than its birthplace, Axum, the northern Ethiopian town that was declared a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage Site in September 1980.

Among the agreements that have been quoted are: 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 Prof. 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.

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 last February. "That is why they don't want to return the Obelisk."

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. Apart from Axum, Ethiopia houses six other UNESCO sites: 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, and 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.

Enduring symbols of ancient Axum are the massive obelisks and stele, which held religious meanings. Although referred to 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.

It is estimated that the Axum Obelisk 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.

The reasons for Rome's reluctance to return it have varied. Some have explained that Italy wouldn't want to set the precedent of returning cultural and historical artefacts stolen by former colonial powers. One consequence of that would be 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.

Instead, government officials released conflicting statements on the issue, which culminated with the threat made by Sgarbi on December 29, 2001 that he would resign if the artefact 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," Sgarbi had said. He said that since Axum is so close to the area of the Eritrean border, which up until last year was the scene of a bloody, two-year war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Obelisk was guaranteed to be destroyed because 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.

Though Rome didn't agree to do so right away, it was significant to note that a team made up of eminent professors of engineering and archaeology were appointed to survey how to transport the monument back to Ethiopia. Interestingly, archaeologists are still unsure how the Obelisk was transported to Axum from a quarry more than two miles away.

Headed by Prof. 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 had proposed that the Obelisk be cut into pieces to ease the transportation and maintain its features.

Since then, nothing has been heard from the Croci team, but with nature having made its statement, it won't be long before the Obelisk starts its journey home.

One curious bystander of the standoff has been UNESCO, which has steered clear of the issue, saying that it is a political matter. In January of this year, UNESCO, which has never shied from stating that it is committed to fighting the illicit trade of stolen historical and cultural artefacts, said that it would not pressure Italy to return the 1,700-year-old monument.

The reason, said the UN agency, is that that the return of the Axum Obelisk 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. Now could be the time for him to say something more definite.

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