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Series: Concerning the Aksum Obelisk
The Re-Erection of the Great Aksum Obelisk Considered
The re-erection of the Great Fallen Aksum Obelisk, as reported in last week’s Addis Tribune, has recently been requested in his official capacity by Ato Gabru Asrat, President of Tigray. This proposal, by the head of the region concerned, deserves serious consideration. Before doing so, in this article, it may be convenient to recall the background to Ato Gabru’s dramatic proposal.
The Return of the Obelisk from Rome
Ato Gabru Asrat’s request comes, as most readers will be aware, in the wake of the Ethio-Italian agreement, signed last year, to the effect that the considerably smaller Aksum obelisk, looted by fascist Italy on the personal orders of the dictator Benito Mussolini, be speedily returned. According to the Italian Peace Treaty, signed with the United Nations in 1947, this should have happened within eighteen months of the ratification of that treaty, and, according to last year’s agreement, restitution should have been effected within the year just ended.
Last year’s Ethio-Italian agreement proved, however, slightly over-confident, for the obelisk is still in Rome, where Mussolini put it, over sixty years ago. There is, however, apparently, every hope that the obelisk’s return will be delayed now by only a few months, and that it will be repatriated before this year’s Italian summer, or Ethiopian rainy season.
Honouring the Italian Peace Treaty of 1947
The return of the obelisk from Rome, a matter of no small satisfaction to the two governments concerned, and one for which they deserve congratulation, will be an event of no small historic significance. It will represent the final, if tardy, fulfillment of the Italian Peace Treaty of 1947: proof, from the international point of view, that treaties are made to be kept, and that the long, and unworthy, period of procrastination over the treaty’s implementation has, in relation to the obelisk, at last come to an end. It is hoped that the return of the obelisk will be followed by that of the remainder of the loot taken in fascist times, but of this we are not yet by any means certain.
The obelisk’s return is particularly significant in the Italian context. The stele’s restitution to Ethiopia will demonstrate the rejection by today’s Italy of its fascist past, and all the madness and criminality that accompanied it. Many Italians, Italo-Americans, and others of Italian descent, were for that reason in the forefront of the agitation for the obelisk’s restoration to its rightful home, in Ethiopia.
The restitution of the obelisk is no less important in the Ethiopian context. The stele’s return is a manifestation of Ethiopia’s independence, and Ethiopia’s desire to maintain its once proud and distinctive, civilisation, as well as a means of giving this unique history and culture the honour and dignity it deserves. We have moreover always believed that the stele’s return, which only a year or so ago seemed little more than a dream, would help to generate a new awareness of this country’s heritage: that restitution would thus help to generate restoration projects throughout the length and breadth of Ethiopia, and thus give an urgently needed new momentum to the struggle for cultural survival.
The Two Obelisks
Critics of the movement for the return of the looted obelisk often admitted that the stele in Rome had been unjustly seized, as a result of an unprovoked invasion, carried out with untold cruelty. They also conceded that the stele was suffering seriously from Roman pollution. They nevertheless asked us, “Why do you bother yourselves about the obelisk in Rome, when so many other obelisks lie uncared for on the ground?”
Ato Gabru Asrat and his administration have given their answer. They have said in effect, “Now that the Looted Obelisk in Italy is to be returned, we must reerect the Great Fallen Obelisk!”
The imminent return of the Aksum obelisk has thus had the effect, as we had hoped, of focusing renewed attention on the country’s historic heritage, and unique cultural property.
Is the Returned Obelisk the Only One to be Re-erected?
Everyone agrees that the Looted Obelisk, soon to be returned from Italy, must be re-erected in Ethiopia, and not just placed lying on the ground. This raises the important question, “Is the obelisk returned from Rome the only one to be re-erected”” This is the question to which Ato Gabru, and his administration, have in effect answered, by requesting the re-erection of the Great Fallen Obelisk.
The re-erection of this obelisk, particularly at a time when far too little attention, sadly, is still being paid to matters cultural, would show the return of the obelisk from Rome in its constructive context. Re-erection moreover would further symbolise determination, on the part of this generation, to pay more than mere lip-service to the question of cultural heritage and its preservation.
Two main objections may, and have already been, raised against the idea of reerecting the Great Fallen Obelisk.
Firstly, it is argued that this obelisk is an object of certain weight, in fact around 500 tons, and that its re-erection would be an enterprise of no small magnitude.
To this argument it may be replied that the obelisk’s re-erection would actually in some ways be easier than that of the stele from Rome, for it would not involve the transport difficulty of moving a large block of stone from one continent to another. The Great Fallen Obelisk, unlike the Looted Obelisk, is in fact already lying more or less exactly where Ato Gabru and his colleagues presumably want to see it re-erected.
Not Very Convincing
The supposed difficulty of moving obelisks, as previously argued in respect of the one in Rome, are not very convincing. The ancient Aksumites were able to transport the Looted Obelisk, the Great Fallen Obelisk, and so many others, over a distance of more than five kilometres, and then erect them at Aksum. We cannot seriously believe that twentieth century humanity (let alone that of the fast-approaching twenty-first century), with all its technological power, cannot re-erect such obelisks. We would further recall the Italian feat of raising the ancient Pharaonic temple at Abu Simbel, in Egypt, which shows that Ato Gabru’s request is far less outlandish than some may seek to suggest.
The second objection to re-erection of the Great Fallen Obelisk is that it may well have collapsed, archaeologists now tell us, in the process of its original erection, and that it may therefore never have stood at all. It is therefore more historic, some would claim, to leave the stele where it now lies, rather than so to speak to “change history” by erecting it, or re-erecting it, again.
To this contention it may be argued that it was undeniably the intention of the ancient Aksumites to erect the obelisk, and that they no less undoubtedly succeeded in raising it substantially off the ground. Otherwise it would not be today in its present broken condition. The damage we now see could only have resulted from the obelisk’s falling, if only in the attempted process of erection. To re-erect the obelisk on a more permanent basis, would, it is true, at first mark a departure from the archaeological status quo. However, as the centuries rolled by, the re-erected obelisk would become just as “historical” as it now is in its fallen position.
By way of analogy it may be recalled that after the destruction of historic cities, such as for example Warsaw in World War II, great efforts were made to rebuild them, as accurately as possible, and thus restore them to their former glory. No one seriously suggested that such cities should be left as “historical” bomb craters and other ruins. Ato Gabru and his colleagues are asking for no more when they request the great obelisk’s re-erection.
We may also ask what the ancient Aksumites would have done, after their obelisk had fallen, had they possessed the technology we now possess. There can, it would appear, be but one answer. They would have persevered in their heroic efforts, and would have carried out the re-erection now proposed by Ato Gabru and his administration, albeit almost two millennia later.
The Three Great Obelisks, and their Location
Ato Gabru’s request is interesting also in another respect. If the Great Standing Obelisk and the stele hopefully soon to be returned from Rome are both re-erected on their original sites they will be aligned with the presently Standing Stele in exactly the position the ancient Aksumite architects designed. This, it may be argued, would be historically far more satisfying than having one obelisk re-erected, because it had been looted by Mussolini, and erected in Rome, while the other obelisk was left lying on the ground, presumably because fascist Italy had been unable to loot it.
The re-erection of the two historic monuments, the Looted Obelisk and the Great Fallen Obelisk, beside the currently Standing Obelisk, would undoubtedly represent an event of major historical importance. It would allow us to see the stele of Aksum in their former glory. Re-erection would produce a stupendous sight, not to mention a remarkable tourist attraction, worthy of the millennium, whether on the Western reckoning, or according to the Ethiopian calendar seven to eight years later.
It Can be Done
There is no technological reason why the Great Fallen Obelisk should not be reerected as the leadership of Tigray requests. The only question is one of will, and intent.
It is up to everyone concerned to weigh the pros and cons of the obelisk’s reerection, and it is in this context, I would reiterate, that Ato Gabru’s request deserves serious consideration, and debate.