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Axum Obelisk To Go Home May 27, 1998
by Angela M.H. Schuster

A 180-ton funerary monument known as the Axum Obelisk, which has graced Rome's Piazza di Porta Capena for more than 60 years, is to be returned to Ethiopia. Taken by the Fascists in 1936, the 74-foot-tall monument is one of a group of six obelisks erected at Axum when Ethiopia adopted Christianity under the emperor Ezana in the mid-fourth century A.D.

Returning the obelisk, however, will be no easy feat. When the monument was removed in 1936, it was in fragments, having been toppled during a sixteenth-century Muslim rebellion. Even then the sheer weight of the fragments pushed the limits of military vehicles and makeshift roads and bridges built by the Italians. Once in Rome, the obelisk was restored with metal rods embedded in concrete, making it impossible to disassemble. Because of its height the obelisk cannot be transported overland. Only two aircraft, the American-built Lockheed C5-A Galaxy and Russian Antonov An-124, are large enough to carrying the obelisk and its protective housing. Unfortunately, the airstrip at Axum is too short and its tarmac too thin to accommodate either plane. To return it, the monument must either be cut apart, preferably along ancient fractures, or the Axum airport improved. These logistical problems aside, scholars are still debating when and where the obelisk should be reerected. David Philipson of Cambridge University, who has been excavating at Axum for the past five years, has found the footings for the obelisk, making it possible to reerect the monument in its original location. He notes, however, that in the area where the obelisk once stood is rich in archaeological deposits that should be investigated before the stela is reerected. Others have suggested that it would fare far better in a museum.

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America