Quest for a treasure's return


AKSUM, Ethiopia - It took dozens of elephants, winches and hundreds, if not thousands, of men to build the giant granite obelisks that dominate this village like skyscrapers.

Two thousand years later, archaeologists marvel at the engineering skill of the ancient Ethiopians who carved and transported some of the largest pieces of stone ever quarried with no help from modern machinery.

What might go down in history as an even greater feat is getting an old colonial power to return one of these prized structures.

In 1937, during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was so enamored of the obelisks that he ordered his troops to steal one and ship it to Rome with other loot.

Today, the obelisk from Aksum - the second-largest ever erected - is on display in Rome near the Colosseum in the Piazza di Porta Capena.

Ever since it was taken, Ethiopians have been campaigning to get it back. Sixty-four years later, they are still waiting.

To Ethiopians, it is a slight that aims at the soul of their history. The intricately carved obelisk carted away by the Italians - a tower more than 60 feet high and weighing more than 100 tons - is one of about a half-dozen of the most complex examples of these stones. The obelisks marked the tombs of ancient ruling families in the kingdom of Aksum, the birthplace of Ethiopian culture and heritage.

To put it in American terms, Italy's taking of the obelisk is akin to Canada's pilfering the Washington Monument and putting it on display in Ottawa.

"The obelisk symbolizes the origin of Ethiopian culture," said Richard Pankhurst, director of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at the University of Addis Ababa. "There is a feeling of outrage here."

For Africa, the fight for the return of Ethiopia's obelisk has come to symbolize the continent's struggle to reclaim its lost treasures. During the 19th century, European colonial powers looted gold, diamonds and many of Africa's best artifacts. Much of the continent's heritage is in European museums.

Italian officials do not deny that Ethiopia is the rightful owner of the Rome obelisk, as it is often called. Italy has said more than once that it is committed to returning the treasure. The latest promise was made last month, when an Italian Foreign Ministry official announced after meeting with Ethiopia's prime minister that planning had begun for the obelisk's return.

In December, Italian officials said the obelisk would be back in Ethiopia in a matter of weeks. The undersecretary for culture then proclaimed that it would stay in Italy.

Moving such a large object will not be easy. Because of Rome's air pollution, the obelisk is structurally weakened. And at more than 100 tons, the obelisk would have to be cut into three pieces before being transported by cargo plane to Ethiopia.

"Steps have already been taken for the safe return of the obelisk to Ethiopia," said Alfredo Mantica, the Foreign Ministry undersecretary.

"I cannot say this year ... probably next year," Arnaldo Minuti, a spokesman for the Italian Embassy in Addis Ababa, said of the return.

None of these delays appears to surprise Ethiopians, who have been given similar promises during the past six decades.

Italy signed a peace treaty in 1947 that demanded all loot stolen from Ethiopia be returned within 18 months. In 1997, an Italian-Ethiopian agreement dealing with the obelisk promised that it would be back in Aksum that year.

In 1998, the Ethiopian Ministry of Posts went so far as to issue postage stamps commemorating arrival of the obelisk. But 1998 came and went, and the obelisk did not budge from Rome.

Then Ethiopia entered a bitter two-year border war with Eritrea, a conflict that delayed plans to get the obelisk back.

Italy has said it did not always consider the obelisk's return a top priority, Minuti said. After World War II, the rebuilding of Italy was more important than shipping the obelisk to Ethiopia. In the years since, changing political climates in Italy and Ethiopia have sidelined the issue, he said. But today, Minuti promised, it is different.

"We have renewed our commitment to Ethiopia," he said, adding that the obelisk's return might open the door for other African nations seeking their cultural heritage.

Pankhurst questions Italy's intentions. During the Italian occupation of Ethiopia from 1935 to 1941, Mussolini sold the invasion as a mission to tame a country perceived to be wild and uncivilized.

"Many Italians are informed by Mussolini propaganda. They view the war as a civilizing mission. Why should they return the obelisk to savages?" said Pankhurst. The Italians' "promises are not promises. I don't see any sign of good faith."

In Aksum, many feel Ethiopia is being overlooked because it can be.

"We are a poor country. We are not educated. We don't have power. And our power is becoming less and less," said Haile Silassie Berhe, an archaeologist at Aksum's archaeological museum.

Even without the obelisk, the village of Aksum, in the far northern Tigray region of Ethiopia, remains a major attraction for Ethiopians looking to relive some of the glory of the ancient Aksumite Kingdom.

At its height in the fourth and fifth centuries, Aksum ranked with Rome and Persia among the world's most important civilizations. The Aksumites developed Africa's only written script, Ge'ez, minted coins and dominated trade between Africa and Asia.

Aksum is also home to the legendary Queen of Sheba and, Ethiopians believe, the Ark of the Covenant.

It takes a little bit of imagination to appreciate that this quiet village of 30,000 people was once the seat of such an influential kingdom. Most of the palaces and tombs are still unexcavated or lie in ruins. And the people go about their business with little notice of the history that surrounds them.

The British explorer Henry Salt was the first foreigner to describe the obelisks. Arriving in Aksum in 1805, Salt saw the tallest standing obelisk dedicated to King Ezana and described it as "the most admirable and perfect monument of its kind."

The King Ezana obelisk remains one of the most popular images of ancient Ethiopia. A much larger obelisk, more than 80 feet high and weighing more than 500 tons, lies broken in pieces like a fallen tree on the ground nearby. Archaeologists believe it was too large to support itself and toppled when it was erected in the fourth century.

The Rome obelisk broke when Mussolini ordered his troops to take it away. A hole marks the spot where the missing obelisk might one day stand again.

The last obelisks were erected in the fourth century, after the kingdom converted to Christianity. But centuries later, the people of Aksum retain their talent for working with stone. Men labor on the side of the road splitting rocks with sledgehammers to build walls and homes. Boys pound broken stones into gravel. Men and women walk a mile or more with stones balanced on their shoulders as if they were nothing more than sacks of flour.

The obelisk issue might remain unresolved, but the people of Aksum do not reject the Italian influence. On nearly every corner is a coffee shop where waiters in pressed white coats shuttle cappuccinos and espressos to customers. At the Africa Hotel in Aksum, Ethiopians pack the restaurant for spaghetti night.

But Berhe, a lifelong resident of Aksum, said that not far from the thoughts of every Aksumite is the lost obelisk and how their village might look when it comes home.

"Because of our heritage, we want it back," he said. "We mention it daily. We are always thinking about it."

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