Articles in this series:
Series: Concerning the Aksum Obelisk
01. The Unfinished History of the Aksum Obelisk Return Struggle
Personal recollections of the Aksum obelisk issue: Early days
This first in a series of articles about what must be rated as one of Ethiopia’s most successful, wholly unofficial and private initiative led grouping – the Aksum Obelisk Return Committee is timely…. Even as we speak, the returned obelisk is being re-mounted on the same spot it had stood on for centuries before it was carted away to a forced exile…..
I write today, dear reader, as one of the founders of the Aksum Obelisk Return Committee. Though our first meeting was held in our house – where we elected former Senator Fitawrari Amede Lemma as our Chairman – my memories are more of the subsequent seemingly interminable meetings in the shop and office of a dedicated Addis Ababa tailor. It belonged to one of the city’s prominent tailors, Ato Tesfaye Zellelew. Sitting in it I recalled, as a student of economic history, that the successful struggle to legalize Trade Unions in Britain had been launched by a Radical British tailor: Francis Place, of Charing Cross. This recollection almost gave me the satisfying feeling that, though the room was dark, our little band of enthusiasts was helping in our minor way to forge history.
My memory of the Aksum Obelisk issue had begun over twenty years earlier – in 1969. As part of an on-going study of Ethiopian economic and social history I had reached the period of the Italian Fascist occupation. Driving home at lunchtime one day, Rita and I stopped at the house of our old friend Ato Berhanu Tessema – who was then a member of the Ethiopian Senae – and his German wife Edith. Conversation touched on the point that I had just written an article on the loot taken from Ethiopia by Fascist Italy, and that this had appeared in the French Africanist journal Présence Africaine (no. 72) – at which point Berhanu told us that the Ethiopian Parliament had by coincidence just been discussing that very subject.
Naturally interested we asked him to elaborate. He told us that his fellow Parliamentarians were infuriated by the Italian Government’s failure to return the Aksum Obelisk looted on Mussolini’s orders over a decade earlier. He went on to declare his conviction that the then Italian Government was evading its treaty obligation to return the Obelisk – and that he was concerned that the Parliament’s discussion and resolution had been ignored in the official Ethiopian press.
We decided to publicize the issue by my writing a second article, this time for the Addis Ababa University Teachers’ journal Dialogue in which I would quote the full text of the resolution which the Parliament had just passed. Berhanu accordingly there and then, dictated his translation of the resolution. In it the Parliament demanded the monument’s restitution, and recommended a series of steps to be taken action should the Italian Government fail to respond. The last of these steps specified that “Italy should not be given the honour of a visit by His Imperial Majesty”.
The article, like its predecessor, concluded by recalling that the Obelisk was still in Rome where Mussolini had taken it – and ended by quoting a contemporary Italian writer, Francesco Pierotti, as justifying this on the ground that “we Italians like old stones”. This shocked Rita, who drafted the final comment::”We wonder whether there are not Ethiopians too who ‘like old stones’, especially one fashioned by their fore-fathers”. We accordingly added “Old Stones” to the article’s title which read “The Loss of Ethiopian Antiquities during the Italian Invasion of 1935-6″ – and appeared in the journal’s March 1970 issue.
Feeling that the Obelisk question should not be forgotten I included reference to it in successive issues of the London-based “Europa” reference work Africa South of the Sahara, which was then widely read in diplomatic circles. – and later raised the matter again in the UNESCO journal Museum, number 149 for 1986.
Such ideas were, however, briskly dismissed by a former Italian Ambassador to Ethiopia, Signor Pastucci-Righi. He observed in the official Italian Government publication Professione Diplomatici that the Ethiopian population “knew nothing of the obelisk” and “attached no sentimental or cultural, let alone economic value to its return”.
And that’s where the matter stood until 1991 – the Fiftieth Anniversary of the fall of Mussolini’s Fascist Empire in the Spring of 1941.
Such is the importance of anniversaries in human life that the year 1991 seemed an appropriate moment for many Italians to recall – and re-evaluate – the short-lived Fascist Empire, which had collapsed with the Italian military surrender of Addis Ababa on 6 April 1941.
On the fiftieth anniversary of that historic event the Italian Left-Wing daily newspaper L’Unità published a general historical article on the Occupation. Written by the present-writer it drew attention to the fact that the Obelisk, despite Ethiopian requests, had thus far not been returned.
This article prompted Mr Bruno Renate Imperiali, an Italian Anti-Fascist in Rome, who had lived in Ethiopia in his youth, to write a Letter to the Editor urging the monument’s repatriation – and I proceeded to write a longer, follow-up, article, exclusively on the Obelisk, which appeared in the same newspaper on 1 December 1991.
The question of the Obelisk’s Return thus came alight in Italy. On 28 December two Italian newspapers, L’Unità and La Republica, published the news that three Italian intellectuals, Vincenzo Francaviglia, Giuseppe Infranca and Alberto Rossi, had signed a Petition to the Italian Government, urging the Obelisk’s return to Ethiopia. Their words, which show that the Obelisk Return movement was in no way “Anti-Italian”, as some people have tried to claim, did not fall on deaf ears.
On learning of the Italian petition Rita and I called our old friend Ato Assefa Gabre Mariam Tessema, formerly of the Ethiopian Ministry of Culture, and together we drafted an Ethiopian Petition to echo that of the three Italian scholar:, It read as follows:
“We recall that Italy has the obligation under Article 37 of the Peace Treaty of 1947 to return to Ethiopia all articles looted after October 3 1935, the day of the fascist invasion.
“We therefore endorse the request of the three Italian scholars, and hereby petition for the return of this historic object to its rightful place”.
Assefa then rushed around Addis Ababa in his Volkswagen collecting signatures. A number of enthusiasts – Shiferaw Bekele, Claude Sumner and Denis Gérard in Addis Ababa, Zawdie Haile Mariam in Sweden, Fikre Tolosa in the United States, Hari Chhabra in India, and several Ras Tafarian groups in Britain and elsewhere – shortly afterwards produced supportive petitions, likewise demanding the Obelisk’s return, for which they collected additional signatures.
The Petition was signed in a matter of days by over 500 then prominent Ethiopians. They included a former Prime Minister, Lij Mikael Imru; a former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dejazmach Zawdie Gabre Sellassie; the artist Maitre Afewerk Tekle; the historian Ato Tekle Tsadik Mekuria; the playwright Tsegaye Gabre Medhin; and the scholarly banker Tafara Deguefe, as well as many academics of Addis Ababa University, among them Professor Mesfin Wolde Mariam.
This initiative received considerable, on-going attention in the Ethiopian press – and led to the next important stage in the Obelisk struggle: the establishment of a private, entirely unofficial, Aksum Obelisk Return Committee.
The first step towards the establishment of the Committee was taken when ex-Senator Fiitawrari Amede Lemma, who had raised the Obelisk issue in the Ethiopian Parliament a generation earlier, approached his neighbour, our mutual friend Artist Afewerk, asking to be put in touch with the present writer. Almost simultaneously a former extension student of mine, the banker and popular historian Belai Geday ‘phoned to propose the establishment of a committee. This was duly sat up, and held its first meeting, on 3 February 1992.
Professor Pankhurst’s ensuing article will chronicle the history of the committee.
(Originally published in Capital newspaper)