The Axum Obelisk is finally back in Ethiopia
Joy as obelisk returns to Ethiopia
Tuesday, April 19, 2005 Posted: 7:50 AM EDT (1150 GMT)
AXUM, Ethiopia (Reuters)
Thousands of Ethiopians cheered and cried joyously as Italy on Tuesday returned the first piece of the Axum obelisk, an ancient national treasure Rome’s fascist regime plundered 68 years ago.
Cheers erupted as the massive cargo jet carrying the first piece of the funerary monument broke through the early-morning mist of the shrouded sky of Axum, a northern city that was the center of ancient Ethiopia’s civilization.
The Russian-made Antonov 124 cargo jet, one of only two types of plane large enough to carry the granite monument’s three parts, alighted smoothly in landlocked Ethiopia on a runway specially built to accommodate its bulk.
“I am now in the last stretch of my life on this earth, and I will go to my grave with the greatest happiness I ever experienced to see the return of the obelisk,” said Abebe Alemayhue, 82, who remembered how Italian invaders surrounded Axum and carried the obelisk away under heavy guard.
The jet, paid for by Italy and flown from Rome, landed nearly six decades after Italy promised to return the 24-meter (78 feet) obelisk after its World War II defeat.
But arguments and logistical challenges kept the obelisk in Rome, where fascist dictator Benito Mussolini had ordered it erected in a flourish of imperial grandeur reminiscent of ancient Roman conquerors.
Ethiopian Orthodox churchmen clad in gold and blue ornamental robes raised high a golden cross and blessed the monument as two cranes pulled the 60-tonne segment out of the jet’s cavernous hold onto a waiting flatbed truck.
Protected by a metal casing, it is to be joined by two other segments in the next 10 days, and then re-erected at the site where Italian troops in 1937 split it into three and carried it to Rome as a symbol of victory over Ethiopia.
The return of cultural treasures, from looted Nazi art to colonial-era artifacts, has become a global issue.
For example, Greece has repeatedly requested the return of the Elgin Marbles, fragments from Athens’ Parthenon temple removed in the early 19th century, from London’s British Museum.
In 1980, the U.N.’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) set up a committee which seeks to promote the return of cultural property to its country of origin.
In Axum, 850 km (530 miles) north of the capital Addis Ababa, residents took to the streets, schools were closed for the day and the buildings festooned with banners of red, green and yellow – the colors of the Ethiopian flag.
“The obelisk is my country’s most precious treasure. This is a day I will never forget and will tell my three children about its history, how it was stolen and how it was returned,” said Boursier Nawumie, who came home from Paris to see the return.
Nesanet Asfaw, Ethiopian minister of state for information, thanked Italy for its cooperation.
“We have waited too long for this day,” she told Reuters.
Italy’s ambassador to Ethiopia, Guido Latella, said Italy is spending $5 million for the transport and re-raising of the monument. The stone altogether weighs 160 tonnes, and the protective casing adds 20 tonnes during transport.
The re-erection of the stele – as archaeologists call the obelisk – is considered by many a serious challenge even for modern engineers, let alone its ancient builders who are said to have used thousands of men and elephants to put it up.
The obelisk is considered to be among the finest of over 120 in Axum, the city of the legendary Queen of Sheba who ruled 1,000 years before the birth of Christ.
Legend has it that God bestowed his favor on the city after the queen’s son Menelik I stole the Ark of the Covenant from his father King Solomon in Jerusalem and brought it to Axum, where many Ethiopians believe it still remains to this day.