Articles in this series:
Series: Concerning the Aksum Obelisk
05. The Unfinished History of the Aksum Obelisk Return Struggle
The Ethiopian Parliament, and the People, Speak Out
We saw last week that demands for the return of the Aksum obelisk were voiced constantly during the early 1990s. Now read on:
Ethiopian demands for the return of the obelisk escalated in the run-up to the Adwa Centenary Celebrations in the Spring of 1996, when rumour, falsely as it turned out, got around that the Italian Government would chose the centenary of the Battle of Adwa to take action on the obelisk issue. The demand for restitution was then taken up by an old friend, Professor Andreas Eshete, Chairman of the Ethiopian Adwa Centenary Commemoration Committee. This gave the movement renewed publicity. Members of the Aksum Obelisk Return Committee spoke, together with Professor Andreas, in a high level Ethiopian television and radio programme, urging immediate Italian action for the obelisk’s return.
The movement, which had until that time been mainly the work of a few dedicated individuals, in the Aksum Obelisk Return Committee, and its overseas supporters, then, at long last, received the official, institutional, support of the Ethiopian Government and people.
Another turning point occurred when Ato Habteab Bairu, an old friend of half a century’s standing, approached a prominent official of Addis Ababa University, Professor Samuel Assefa, who approached the Speaker of the Ethiopian Federal Parliament, Ato Dawit Yohannes, who realised that the time for institutional action had arrived.
The Ethiopian Parliament accordingly, for the first time in its history, held a public hearing on the obelisk as a matter of public concern. Devoted to the question of the obelisk, the gathering was addressed by Professor Andreas Eshete, of the Adwa Centenary Commemoration Commission, Professor Bahru Zewde, the then Director of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Dr Kassai Begashaw, Minister of Culture, as well as by Fitawrari Amede Lemma and other members of the Aksum Obelisk Return Committee. Mr Marco Vigoni, an Italian teacher at the Italian School in Addis Ababa, also gave his support. This was particularly gratifying, in that the Addis Ababa Italian community as a whole, regrettably, never came out wholeheartedly in support of obelisk restitution.
Shortly afterwards, on 8 February 1996, the Parliament unanimously passed an historic resolution demanding the obelisk’s immediate return. The resolution instructed the Ethiopian Government to follow up on the matter.
This Parliamentary action won the obelisk renewed media attention, and at last made the stele’s restitution well-nigh inevitable.
The Patriarch’s Letter
His Holiness Patriarch Paulos V, Head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, whom we then approached, shortly afterwards despatched letters on the matter to the Christian Churches of Africa, as well as to the Pope of Rome. In his epistle to the Pope, despatched on 22 June, which in itself was virtually unprecedented, declared:
“Greetings in the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, One God, Amen.
“It is our pleasure to write to you today on a subject that we are sure you will understand and appreciate.
“You might be aware that Ethiopia, like your own country Poland, was not spared from the convulsions and imbroglio of the Second World War. I need not go into detail on the spiritual, human, social and political dimensions of its far ranging consequences.
“When Fascist Italy attempted to subdue our people and subjugate our country in 1935-1941, it dismally failed, primarily due to the heroism of our freedom-fighters and the relentless efforts of our church.
“In its brief stay here where it was harried by our heroes, Fascist Italy managed to take away one of the world-famous obelisks of Axum.
“The loot, the second tallest and sadly for our church the one that used to stand in the courtyard of the St Mary of Zion Church in Axum, stands to this day in front of the F.A.O. headquarters in Rome. We believe, Your Holiness, it is time the obelisk came back home. In this connection, therefore, we would like to solicit your voice and your moral authority so that the obelisk which has a tremendous historical and cultural value to us Ethiopians and to the Peoples of Africa as well as to others of African descent to be brought back to where it was taken from – Ethiopia…”
The Parliament of Tegray (Region 1) not long afterwards passed a similar resolution for the obelisk’s restitution.
Petition by the People of Aksum
Later, in June, another important development occurred. Mr Tony Hickey, of Experience Travel, with whom we had discussed the obelisk issue in England, before his arrival in Ethiopia, arranged with his colleague Ato Naftalem Kiros, to organise a petition at Aksum for the return of the obelisk. Over 13,000 inhabitants of the city at once enthusiastically signed an Obelisk Return Petition, and, shortly afterwards, a further thousand. This was the largest petition ever signed in Ethiopian history, and received considerable media attention, on BBC radio and television, and Canadian radio, as well as in the Italian, British, and world press.
This Petition, which deserves to be written in letters of gold, declares:
“We, the people of Aksum, recall that our second largest obelisk was unjustly taken from our city by fascist Italy in 1937.
“We further recall that this obelisk should have been returned in accordance with Article 37 of the Italian Peace Treaty with the United Nations, which specified that all loot taken from Ethiopia after 3 October 1935, i.e. the date of the fascist invasion, should be returned within 18 months.
“We also recall that the Ethiopian Federal Parliament passed a unanimous resolution, on 8 February of this year, demanding for the obelisk’s immediate return.
“We are most anxious to see the obelisk, our priceless historical heritage, returned to Aksum as soon as possible, and, supporting the Ethiopian Parliament’s unanimous resolution, hereby petition for our obelisk’s immediate restitution”.
Press Correspondence, Trieste Resolution, and Rome Poster
In Britain meanwhile correspondence on the obelisk, by Stephen Bell and the present writer, appeared in both The Times and The Guardian. The Anglo-Ethiopian Society also circularised their members on the issue of the monument’s continued, and unjustified, stay in Rome. Two interviews with a member of the Obelisk Committee appeared in the Rome journal l’Unita, in which the Italian agitation for the stele’s return had in a sense originally started, half a decade earlier. In them it was suggested that if the obelisk was not returned African states would be obliged to oppose an Italian proposal to hold the Olympic Games in Rome. The dramatic question was asked: “The obelisk or the games?” International supporters of the Committee also wrote letters on the obelisk issue to Italian embassies in Britain, the United States, and other parts of the world.
The Fourth International Conference on the History of Ethiopian Art, meeting in Trieste, Italy, in September, passed a resolution, moved by Professor Achamele Debela, urging the Italian authorities to return the obelisk without delay.
Almost at the same time a notable Italian anti-fascist, Signor Alberto Imperiali, and a group of Ethiopians in Rome, put up a poster on the Rome obelisk. This stated that the monument did not belong to Italy, but to Ethiopia, from which it had been wrongly “stolen”.
Secretary-General of OAU Supports Restitution
In Addis Ababa meanwhile Fitawrari Amede Lemma and members of the Obelisk Committee called on Dr Salem Ahmed Salem, Secretary-General of the Organisation of the Organisation of African Unity, OAU, who stated publicly that he was fully in support of restitution.
The Ethiopian Government’s Inter-Ministerial Committee, chaired by Ato Jara Haile Mariam, of the Ministry of Culture, meanwhile considered the obelisk issue extensively, and coopted on to it three members of the Return Committee. The final meeting of the series, held on 9 January 1997, was chaired by the Ethiopian Minister of Information and Culture, Ato Woldemikael Chamu, and addressed by the Foreign Minister, Ato Seyoum Mesfin. Speakers at this gathering, which was televised, all insisted once more on the obelisk’s speedy restoration to Ethiopia.
These, and other manifestations, were widely reported in the Ethiopian, Italian, and international press. Detailed expositions on the obelisk issue were published in the Italian and Ethiopian press, notably by Professor Francaviglia, and three members of the Return Committee: Ato Belai Gedey, Engineer Tadele Bitul Kibrat, and the present writer. Advocates of the obelisk’s restitution also made use of Internet to despatch a packet of material on the issue to Web-users throughout the world.
Mission to Rome: A Decision at Last
The final act of the drama (at least to date!) came following the visit to Rome in the Spring of this year by an Ethiopian delegation led by Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister Dr Tekeda Alemu, and the subsequent visit of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
Dr Takeda was accompanied by two members of the Aksum Obelisk Committee, and in fact its undisputed founders, Fitawrari Amede Lemma and Ato Belai Gidey. Dr Takeda and the Italian Deputy Foreign Minister, Senator Rino Serri duly signed an Ethio-Italian agreement, on 4 March. It specified that the obelisk will be returned within the current year 1997. This was further laid down in subsequent joint Ethiopian declaration, made at the time of Prime Minister Melles’s visit, on 8 April. The full texts of both documents were published this year in “Addis Tribune” of 16 May.
So far, of course, the obelisk, has not moved. It still stands, today, in Rome, where Mussolini placed close on sixty years ago. The 1997 deadline, specified in this year’s Ethio-Italian agreement, is only six months away!
Let the last words in this series of articles come from my friend Professor Pascal James Imperato, an Italo-American, who is Distinguished Service Professor in the State University of New York Health Science Center at Broklyn, a man who struggled in the United States for the obelisk’s return. In a letter which has just reached me he writes:
“The return of the obelisk represents not only the restoration of Ethiopian cultural patrimony, but also an act of healing for Italian aggression against Ethiopia in 1935-41. I hope that in the future, the obelisk will come to symbolize the Ethiopian people’s admirable capacity to persist and endure even when faced with overwhelming adversity”
To this we can but say: Amen!
(THIS CONCLUDES THE PRESENT SERIES OF ARTICLES ON THE OBELISK)