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Looted Axum Obelisk to return home to Ethiopia

The Axum Obelisk was taken from Ethiopia by Mussolini’s forces in 1937, after they had conquered the country. Plans are now under-way to return it back to its original location.

Globe & Mail (Canada) [1]

Friday, Oct. 24, 2003
A monumental plunder:
Massive object was taken from Ethiopia by Mussolini, ALAN FREEMAN reports from Rome
From Friday’s Globe and Mail

The Aksum obelisk is finally about to go home to Ethiopia, if only a way can be found to get it there.After years of delays and prevarications, the Italian government has decided to return the 24-metre-high granite funeral stele — plundered by the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini in 1937 as booty from his newly conquered African empire.

Scaffolding already obscures the obelisk, which stands on the curbside of a busy piazza in central Rome.

Next week, hydraulic jacks will begin the delicate task of breaking it apart into manageable chunks for its eventual journey back to Africa.

Nobody can accuse Italy of excessive good faith in the affair, however, seeing that it already once vowed to return the monument to its home in the dusty Ethiopian town of Aksum — in 1947, in a peace treaty it signed but then somehow forgot about.

“It was looted. It was taken against our will,” said Mengistu Hulluka, Ethiopia’s ambassador to Italy.

“It’s as if France or Germany stole the statue of St. Peter’s in St. Peter’s Church or the Madonna of Pompeii,” added Vincenzo Francaviglia, a 64-year-old Italian geologist who has campaigned for a dozen years for the obelisk’s return.

In fact, despite letter-writing campaigns and petitions both in Italy and Ethiopia, it was only after the top of the obelisk was shattered by a lightning strike in May, 2002, that the Italians were finally embarrassed into actually sending it back.

It turned out that the Italian authorities had never bothered to install lightning rods.

So much then for the claims that the obelisk would be better off in Italy than in the hands of one of the world’s poorest countries.

“They didn’t give it as much protection as they should,” Mr. Hulluka complained.

The Italians fixed the broken obelisk, and the government cabinet formally decided to send the whole thing back to Aksum, which was once capital of the ancient Aksumite empire. But shipping a 150-tonne slab of granite to northern Ethiopia involves more than a call to Federal Express.

“It’s a very delicate operation because it’s the first time we have done something like this,” said Giorgio Croci, the engineer in charge of the project.

His previous experience includes straightening somewhat the Leaning Tower of Pisa and repairing the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi after the 1997 earthquake.

When the obelisk was grabbed from Aksum, it had already been lying in pieces on the ground for several hundred years. Once in Rome, it was rebuilt by boring holes in the stone and attaching the pieces together with bronze rods and cement.

Mr. Croci now plans to pull the obelisk apart into three large pieces along the old fault lines. After encasing the granite in carbon-fibre-reinforced cement and surrounding it with steel plates, technicians will use hydraulic jacks to slowly separate the pieces and then ship them to a warehouse.

However, in the contemporary politics of East Africa, getting the separated bits back to Aksum may prove a still bigger challenge. In 1937, the monument was taken overland to the port of Massawa on the Red Sea and then by ship to Italy.

But Mr. Hulluka, the ambassador, said that is now out of the question because Massawa is in Eritrea, which won its independence from Ethiopia in 1991, and the two countries have only recently finished fighting a fierce war.

The alternative is air transport. Considering the fact that the biggest chunk of obelisk is expected to weigh 60 tonnes, the only possibility is to use a Russian-built Antonov or a U.S. military Galaxy C5 for the job, planes that are normally used for carrying tanks and armoured personnel carriers.

Mr. Croci acknowledges that he doesn’t yet know exactly how much each piece will weigh, and considering the length of the Aksum air strip and the fact that the town is 2,200 metres above sea level, it’s still uncertain whether a plane will be a viable option.

Once it does reach its destination, the Italians have also promised to help the Ethiopians put the monument back together.

Despite the uncertainties, Mr. Croci is hopeful the obelisk will be re-erected some time next year. And it’s expected that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi will fly to Aksum to mark the occasion.

There remains opposition to the plan, though. One senior Italian cultural official has suggested that the monument has been in Italy for so long that it has been “naturalized,” along the lines of 13 Egyptian obelisks that were plundered by the Romans and have been gracing the likes of St. Peter’s Square for centuries.

Just this week, the Duke of Aosta, a member of Italy’s deposed royal family, told the Corriere della Sera newspaper that the late Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie told him in 1969 the obelisk was a gift to the Italian people.

The Duke said sending it back would create “a dangerous precedent.”

The Greek government, in the midst of a prolonged battle to get the British Museum to send the Elgin Marbles back to Athens, says the return of the Aksum obelisk provides another argument in favour of its position.

As to whether it will set a precedent, Mr. Francaviglia, the geologist, said he is doubtful. He doesn’t expect France to return the Egyptian obelisk at Place de la Concorde taken from Egypt by Napoleon, nor does he think Italy will give back its Egyptian monuments.

“They will stay in Rome, for sure,” he said.