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Ethiopia: no plane to carry obelisk home? After 50 years of broken promises, the Italian government is still failing to deliver on its pledge to send home Ethiopia's famous obelisk. Gail Warden reports.

Nearly 2,000 years of Ethiopian heritage is currently wrapped up and sitting in a warehouse at Rome's Fiumicino Airport. It is a 4th Century obelisk that was stolen by Mussolini in 1936, from Axum in northern Ethiopia. On his orders, the monument was erected near the Coliseum in Rome and it stood there for decades.


But under a peace treaty signed in 1947, Italy agreed to return the obelisk and many other items looted from Ethiopia, which still lie in Italian museums. In October 2003, Italy finally began fulfilling its long-held pledge by dismantling the obelisk in preparation for its transportation back to Axum.

This job ran through to December 2003, just before Christmas. But since then, the 30-metre high obelisk, which weighs 160 tonnes, is still waiting to be shipped back to where it rightfully belongs.

The main obstacle seems to be a lack of suitable aircraft that can take the weight of the dismantled obelisk. The plane of choice would be a Galaxy, of which the US has at least 130, currently "all tied up in Iraq", according to Aurelia Brazeal, the American ambassador to Ethiopia.

The Americans also claim that the Italian government has not given them the correct measurements of the obelisk nor has it paid them for the necessary consultancy work of examining the obelisk in Rome and the airport runway in Axum.

Meanwhile, because of the wrangling in Rome, the Ethiopian government is unable to make final plans for the obelisk's welcome home. But Ethiopia's minister of culture, Teshome Toga, is still optimistic. "Hopefully we will see its return this year and that is the time-frame we are working on", he said, adding that there is now a shortlist of two companies who may transport and re-erect the obelisk on the original site in Axum--the heart of what was once one of the four kingdoms of the world.

The minister also points out that Axum's high altitude poses yet another problem to aircraft and that there is some doubt as to whether the new airport runway at Axum could take the combined weight of a plane and the obelisk.

But campaigners are becoming impatient. They argue that if Mussolini managed to transport it from Ethiopia to Italy in 1936, the benefit of modern technology, 68 years on, should surely make the return easier.

One of the campaigners, Professor Richard Pankhurst of Addis Ababa University, said: "The lack of progress dashes the hopes of many people in Ethiopia. It was at Axum in June 1996 that close to 15,000 inhabitants, a large proportion of the population of that tiny old city, signed a petition for the monument's return, and where people to this day are praying for its speedy repatriation."

The waiting has not been helped by remarks by certain Italian officials, such as Vittorio Sgarbi, a former vice-cultural minister, who recently said that the obelisk "will indefinitely remain at the Rome airport".

While the obelisk was being dismantled in December 2003, Sgarbi had turned up on the site in Rome and harangued the Ethiopians who had gathered to see their obelisk brought down amid hopes that it would soon be flown back to their homeland.

They must be disappointed to learn that to this day, neither the obelisk nor Ethiopia's first ever plane, called Tsehai after the Emperor's favourite daughter, and other valuable items (including the state archives taken by Mussolini) have not been returned.

As things stand, two conclusions are currently circulating: either there is no real will to return the obelisk, or there is a hidden agenda that by tucking it away in a warehouse, it will eventually be forgotten.

However, there is some optimistic news. At the end of May last year, a Scottish professor, Fiona Wilson, of Roskilde University in Denmark, returned the shield of Emperor Tewodros to Ethiopia. It was handed over to the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University.

She explained that the shield had been in her family's possession since her grandfather had purchased it in the 1890s in Glasgow. "Throughout my childhood, the shield hung in the dining room of my parents' house," she said. "Everyone believed it was Scottish, but I discovered that I had become, without realising it, the keeper of a small part of Ethiopia's historical heritage and national treasure and decided it should be returned."

The shield was part of a huge haul of items looted by the British when they attacked and ransacked Emperor Tewodros' fortress town of Magdala on Easter Day 1868.

This brings the total of returned Magdala items to 12, five in the last three years, an astonishing success for the Association for the Return of Magdala Ethiopian Treasures (AFROMET) that, as its name suggests, campaigns for the return of Magdala treasures.

This month (July), at AFROMET'S bidding, the court of Edinburgh University in Scotland will decide whether to return six sacred manuscripts now in its library, which were filched by the British from Magdala. Campaigners are hoping that, in a modern spirit of justice, the manuscripts will be returned. But they are already planning a series of demonstrations, just in case.
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Title Annotation:Around Africa
Author:Warden, Gail
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6ETHI
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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