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Special Report: The Axum Obelisk Returns, but Some Still Grumble Volume 58 Number 4, July/August 2005
by Ian Limbach

The return in April of the 1,700-year-old Axum obelisk to Ethiopia, after more than a half-century of negotiation and broken promises, is a boost to national pride and adds to the momentum toward the repatriation of colonial cultural spoils. But it also reveals that many ethnic tensions remain unhealed in modern Ethiopia.

One of a group of seven obelisks erected at Axum when Ethiopia adopted Christianity under the Emperor Ezana in the mid-fourth century A.D., the 78-foot-tall monument was taken by the occupying Italian army and shipped to Rome in 1937 to celebrate Mussolini's fifteenth year of power. It was erected near the Circus Maximus and stood there until it was dismantled in 2003 following a lightning strike that had damaged the top of the obelisk the year before.

The return had been pending for nearly 60 years, following the signing of a UN treaty in 1947. Both Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie and the Marxist military regime that deposed him tried unsuccessfully to regain the monolith, which had once marked an elite tomb. In 1997, another treaty was signed, but Italian officials still balked.

The city of Axum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia bordering Eritrea, holds a special place in the hearts of many Ethiopians. It was the seat of the powerful pre-Christian Axumite Empire, which thrived during the first millennium A.D., and also remains the holiest of cities for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, who believe that the Ark of the Covenant resides in a church there. The symbolism invested in Axum's ancient monuments made Italy's refusal to return the obelisk all the more humiliating for Ethiopia.

A 14-year campaign led by Italian, Ethiopian, and British intellectuals successfully mounted enough pressure to force the return. In the meantime, experts had also agreed on a safe way to disassemble the stele into three segments.

In the weeks before the stele's arrival, euphoria seized much of the nation. Parading school children, chanting priests, and dancing Axumites were broadcast daily on Ethiopian television. Even the foreign press reveled in the nation's proud homecoming party.

But not all Ethiopians shared the enthusiasm. "Our prime minister tells us that the return of the obelisk is a Tigrian affair, not the business of us southern people," says Alemayehu, an ethnic Oromo who works for a non-governmental organization that helps the rural poor outside the capital, Addis Ababa. Despite being Ethiopia's largest ethnic group, Oromos have long been discriminated against.

The nation's politics have historically been dominated by the Tigrians, an ethnic minority that makes up about 6 percent of the population. Axum, as the historic center of the Tigray region and seat of the Orthodox Patriarch, is viewed as the exclusive home of the country's political and ecclesiastical elite.

In Awash, a small town located east of Addis in the isolated Afar region, a young school boy was aware of the return but unmoved. "The Italians are giving it back to the people in Axum," he says.

"This is a gift from our leaders to their own people," adds Mohammed, a Muslim from Harar in the eastern highlands now living in Addis.

Others criticize the money invested in the repatriation mission, which was provided by the Italian government and estimated at close to $8 million. "Educated Ethiopians are not in favor of this," says Yimer, a retired school teacher in Addis. "They should spend that money on food security first."

Transporting the obelisk back to Axum was a logistical nightmare. When the Fascists removed the monument in the 1930s, they relied on newly built roads and bridges leading to the seaport at Massaua. Seventy years later, the infrastructure is decrepit and the port belongs to Eritrea. Relations between it and Ethiopia are virtually nonexistent.

The sole option was to fly the stele back in three 60-ton pieces on a Russian-built Antonov 124, the only plane capable of transporting such a load. Because Axum lies nearly 7,000 feet above sea level, the thin air meant that the gargantuan plane could only land when the temperature was below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. But since the airstrip lacks navigational aids, a night landing was ruled out. The only option was to land exactly at dawn. "Did we have doubts it could be done? Oh, yeah, right up to the end!" says Paul Furlonger, commercial vice president at Antonov Airlines.

Plans to reassemble the obelisk in September, following the rainy season, are now on hold. The day that the final piece of the stele arrived in Axum, UNESCO archaeologists announced the discovery of a large network of underground tombs beneath the site where the obelisk is to be erected.

Ethiopia has a chance to leverage the return of the Axum obelisk into desperately needed tourist dollars. In the past, the country has failed to attract foreign tourists, despite pulls such as Axum, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, and Lucy, the 3.2-million-year-old hominid.

But so far the only visible step the government has taken is to issue a diktat that prohibits any private business activity related to the obelisk, including publicity and publishing.

Ian Limbach is a journalist based in Italy.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America