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Series: Concerning the Aksum Obelisk
Reprinted from the “Guardian,” London
The world’s largest transport planes are in line to bring home one of the biggest pieces of loot in the long history of imperialism. It is a giant granite pillar or stela, weighing roughly 170 tons, which presently stands in the middle of the Piazza di Porta Capena in Rome.
Put there by Mussolini in 1937, the huge obelisk was seized in revenge for Italy’s defeat by Ethiopian forces at the battle of Adwa near Axum in 1896.
More than 50 years have passed since the obelisk was due to be returned, after the Western Allies wrote a clause in Italy’s 1947 peace treaty insisting that this fascist plunder be reversed. But governments in Rome found constant reasons for delay.
Giving back the obelisk creates a precedent for the return of other imperial plunder, from the Elgin Marbles to the Rosettta stone. The movement to bring the Axum monument home was partly led by Richard Pankhurst, a renowned scholar of Ethiopian history, who has lived in Addis for long periods since his suffragette and anti-fascist mother, Sylvia Pankhurst, moved to Ethiopia in 1956.
“It’s not a question of emptying the British Library,” he says, “but for important parts of a country’s heritage there’s a case for return.” He is pushing for Ethiopia to get back the Magdala Papers, a collection of 462 manuscripts taken by the British when they defeated Emperor Tewodros in 1868. Written in the ancient language of Geez, six are in Windsor Castle, but the bulk are in the British Library.
The British Council has been paying to have them microfilmed. This ought to make their return less contentious. Dr Pankhurst argues that although Italy’s surrender of the Axum obelisk is a legal issue since it was part of an international treaty, “giving back the Magdala manuscripts is a moral and utilitarian one. It wouldn’t hurt Britain very much. The manuscripts would be of greater use here than in London.” At least there would be little difficulty in handling their transport.