Wednesday, November 24

Aksum doesn't want to wait in vain

the Axum history part of this post has been spun off to here

The Economist of October 9, 2004 (no link available) had an article on efforts to regain some stolen items of Ethiopia's history
It Is a poor country with a rich history. Through force and unfair dealing, many of Ethiopia's historical relics have left the country. Ethiopians want to bring them home, not just to celebrate their past, but to earn tourist dollars in future.

The main contention is a 150-tonne granite obelisk, 24 metres high, which is now lying in pieces in a police yard in Rome. Until 2003, the obelisk—carved intriguingly with doors and windows as if it were a ten-storey building—spent 66 years standing at one of the city's busy intersections. The obelisk dates from the fourth century and comes from Aksum, a northern Ethiopian town where it probably served as a royal tomb marker and ceremonial altar.
A brief on the Axumite Empire and of the obelix / stele mentioned can be found at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Back to The Economist
When the Italians invaded Ethiopia in 1935, the obelisk—which by then had fallen down and fractured into five chunks—was shipped as fascist booty to Rome. In Aksum one elderly Ethiopian, Abebe Alemayehu, remembers the trouble the Italian army had shifting the obelisk, their trucks bogged down by the weight.

As part of a treaty in 1947, Italy promised to return the obelisk and other objects looted during the occupation. Fifty years later, the two governments signed yet another agreement to send the obelisk back. A damaging lightning strike two years ago was a catalyst at last to dismantle the monument and pack it up for shipment. Since then, it has not budged from Rome.

Still, the Rome University professor in charge of the obelisk project, Giorgio Croci, is hopeful. He says that the monument should start the long trip home by early next year. It will cost euro5m ($6.1m) to ship and re-erect it.

The Italian government has yet to announce that all of the money has been earmarked. Then there are logistics. The port through which the obelisk left in 1937 now belongs to Eritrea, with which Ethiopia has fought a bitter war. The nearest feasible port, Djibouti, is 900 kilometres (560 miles) from Aksum, across roads and bridges which may not take the strain. The current plan, says Mr Croci, is to hire an ex-military Russian transport plane to fly the pieces over, one by one.

Back in Aksum, people are confident of the obelisk's return.
The airplane mentioned is the gargantuan Antonov 125 Cossack was originally designed to carry the cancelled Soviet space shuttle and now has a profitable niche market in high value oversize and overweight cargo. It is operated by Antonov Airlines who told the BBC
that they had been approached to fly the obelisk home to Axum, but they had explained that, in its present form, it could not be carried safely.

It is in three pieces, but even so the largest piece weighs 60 tons, and they would not be able to balance the load properly to land on the relatively short runway.
No-one wants to damage the monument further by cutting it into smaller pieces and the cost of lengthening the runway at Axum, or upgrading the roads and strengthening the bridges so it could be transported from the capital Addis Ababa would be prohibitive.

The only other alternative seems to be to take the monument back by sea.

The obvious and easy solution would be to ship it back via Massawa port in Eritrea, which lies near Ethiopia's border, and was how it was transported out in the first place.

But the two countries have not been speaking to each other since a bitter border conflict and show little signs of doing so.
There are also efforts underway to recover other pieces of Ethiopian history that are found in the strangest places as noted in this post. AFROMET is campaigning for the return of other lost treasures.

UPDATE: The obelisk is supposed to be on the way home sometime soon as according to a Meskel Square post of early January 2004.

Dr. Richard Pankhurst, a noted Ethiopianist, has a series of papers titled "The Unfinished History of the Aksum Obelisk Return Struggle". Here are links to parts I, II and III detailing efforts from the immediate post-war period to the recent efforts of the current Foreign Minister, Ato Seyoum Mesfin.

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