Articles in this series:
Series: Concerning the Aksum Obelisk
The Question of the Looted (and Still Not Returned) Aksum Obelisk
The struggle for the return to Ethiopia of the Aksum obelisk, looted by fascist Italy in 1937 and so far not returned, has passed through several different stages.
The movement has witnessed: a petition by 500 prominent Ethiopians, among them a former Prime Minister, Lij Mikael Imru, and many leaders of culture; a petition by several thousand Addis Ababa University students; the founding in Addis Ababa of an Aksum Obelisk Return Committee; a demonstration in the Addis Ababa stadium, in which the vast crowd chanted, of the obelisk, “Let it Return!, Let it Return!”; innumerable messages of support by prominent scholars of Ethiopia and Italy (to cite but one example of each, Professor Sven Rubenson and Professor Denis Mack Smith); statements by prominent African diplomats and scholars (for example the ambassadors in Addis Ababa of Nigeria and Zimbabwe, and the Egyptian Antiquities Department); unanimous resolutions by the Ethiopian Federal Parliament and the Assembly of Region 1; a letter from the Ethiopian Patriarch, Abuna Pawlos V, to the Pope of Rome; a petition by 13,000 inhabitants of Aksum; the placing of a placard on the obelisk, stating that it belongs to Ethiopia, and must be returned forthwith; and, most recently, a voice of support from the Secretary-General of the Organisation of African Unity, Dr Salim Ahmed Salim.
In the most recent phase of the struggle scores of letters have been addressed to diplomats and prominent personalities throughout the world. Several such letters are from Americans of Italian descent.
Distinguished Service Professor Pascal Imperato
One such letter was written to the United States ambassador in Rome, Reginald Bartholomew, on 1 July of this year, by Professor Pascal J. Imperato, an Italo-American, who holds the prestigious title of Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine and Community Health in the State University of New York. An Africanist of note, he writes:
“Dear Ambassador Bartholomew,
“During the Italian-Ethiopian war, the Italian government removed an obelisk from Aksum in Ethiopia. It presently stands in the Piazza di Porta Capena in Rome in front of the headquarters of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.
“As an Africanist with a special interest in the Horn of Africa, and as an Italian-American, I am both puzzled and troubled as to why successive Italian governments have not returned this obelisk, despite repeated requests by the Ethiopian government. This is all the more difficult to comprehend since the Italian-United Nations peace treaty of 1947 calls for the return of Ethiopian patrimony looted during the war.
“The obelisk’s location in an area of dense vehicular traffic exposes it to significant pollution-induced erosion and damage. This alone strongly persuades in favor of its removal.
“Italy is a country where there is a very high level of consciousness about the importance and value to national identity of historic and religious treasures. Thus Italy’s continued retention of a major historical monument looted from another country defies its own values.
“I should be grateful for whatever efforts you could undertake to resolve this long-standing issue”.
Professor C. Gamst
Another letter was despatched by Professor C. Gamst, an American anthropologist of partial Italian descent at the Department of Anthropology of the University of Massachusetts at Boston. On 24 October he wrote to Ferdinando Salleo, the Italian Ambassador to the United States, to say:
“My Dear Mr. Ambassador.
“This letter requests your assistance in the return by the Italian government to Ethiopia of the great Aksumite obelisk, taken as Axis war booty from a prostrate Ethiopia, as discussed below.
“I have heard that the Italian government, at long last, is considering its treaty responsibility to return the Great Obelisk of Aksum, stolen by the Fascists in 1937, from Ethiopia which they invaded and violated. This colossal theft is, of course, among the first war crimes of the various Fascist aggressors during World War II, a devastation with which they engulfed the world.
“The grand monument of Aksum is a magisterial manifestation in architecture and art of the cultural heritage of the citizens of Ethiopia. The present Italian government, successor to that of the Fascists defeated by the United Nations in 1943, should speedily restore this looted monument to its original Aksumite location, and at no cost to the government and people of Ethiopia. Such a return of its war loot by a post-Fascist government of Italy is now more than a half century overdue. I am sure that the current government of Italy will, at long last, desire to do the right thing as a legitimate member of the family of nations – immediately to restore the great Obelisk to Aksum.
“As an Italo-American on my mother’s side (nee Aida Rosa Durante, daughter of Pasquale and Rosa Durante), I find the Italian war crimes against persons and property in Ethiopia unconscionable. I request your excellency’s assistance in this matter of effecting justice, long denied, regarding the Great Obelisk of Aksum”.
Professor Norma Comrada
Another American scholar of Italian descent, Professor Norma Comrada, of the University of Oregon, at Eugene, also wrote to the Italian Ambassador in Washington, on 13 September, as follows:
“Dear Ambassador Salleo,
“I am writing in regard to the Ethiopian obelisk which now resides in Rome. My understanding is that the Italian government indeed intends to return the obelisk to Ethiopia, and that this will happen in the near future.
“May I add my voice to those who applaud this action? It would be both generous and appropriate.
“Thank you for whatever indication you may give to your government that the return of the obelisk is supported by many Americans, as well as Ethiopians and other concerned people”.
A further letter was addressed by President Rajeshwar Singh and Secretary Baman Alif of C.I.A.O., the Court Interpreters’ Association of Ontario, Canada, to Professor Federico Mayor, Director-General of UNESCO. They wrote, on 30 August:
“We the undersigned, officers of the Court Interpreters Association of Ontario, C.I.A.O., of Canada, present our compliments to Your Excellency and have the honor to petition your Goodself and through you, your International Organisation, UNESCO, to intercede on behalf of the People of Ethiopia with the government of the Italian Republic for the return of the Ethiopian Obelisk from Rome to Ethiopia.
“The Obelisk, dating back to the 4th century A.D., was looted by the Italians by the special order of the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, in 1937 during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia.
“In 1947 Italy signed a peace treaty with the United Nations. In article 37 of this treaty, Italy agreed to return the obelisk to Ethiopia. To date, the obelisk still stands in Rome.
“We now appeal to your organisation, UNESCO, as an arm of the UN, dealing with cultural affairs, to appeal to the Italian Government to abide by the treaty signed with the UN nearly one half century ago”.
Dr Neville Smith, of Ottawa
Dr Neville Smith, of Ottawa, wrote to the Italian ambassador in Ottawa, Canada, on 17 September, saying:
“Two years ago I visited Ethiopia, and in Axum saw the ancient splendid obelisks. I learned that one of the most historic had been removed to Rome. I understood that negotiations were underway to have this returned to its rightful home.
“Recently I heard an interview with Professor Richard Pankhurst on CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation]
“I would be interested to hear if talks are proceeding, and if so when the obelisk might be expected back in Ethiopia, thus righting a wrong dating from old wars and brief colonialism”.
Sylvia Ayling, and Glenda Jackson M.P.
Numerous letters were also despatched from Britain. A public-spirited British woman, Sylvia Ayling, wrote to the Italian Embassy in London, on 8 September, to declare, in part:
“Publicity has recently been given in the Guardian newspaper to the fact that the Aksum Obelisk at present has been standing in Rome since 1937. And I was reminded last week of many other unethical acts committed by fascist Italy during the Second World War, when Professor Mack Smith, author of an acclaimed biography of Benito Mussolini, was interviewed on the World At One [the Radio Four new television programme]..
“It would be fitting, as the Millennium approaches, that consideration be urgently given to what would appear to be the very just demands made by the Ethiopian people, in accordance with Article 37 of the Italian Peace Treaty with the United Nations, to return the obelisk. I add my own appeal, as a European whose conscience has been stirred”.
A letter demanding the obelisk’s immediate repatriation was also despatched to the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in Rome, on 23 October, by the well-known British Labour Member of Parliament, and former rernowned actress, Glenda Jackson.
The time has at last arrived for the Italian Government to “come clean”; and to announce to the world a timetable for the immediate return of the obelisk to the country whose people sculpted almost two millennia ago.