December 3, 2003

The Axum Obelisk is going to return

Posted at 1:07 pm in Similar cases

Italy has been prevaricating for a long time over the return of the Axum Obelisk. It looks now as though the move is finally underway, as engineers delicately dismantle the artefact so that it can be transferred back to its homeland.

Chicago Tribune

Rome packing up Ethiopian treasure
An ancient obelisk seized by Mussolini as a trophy is going home after a 65-year wait
By Tracy Wilkinson, Tribune Newspapers
Los Angeles Times
Published December 2, 2003

ROME — Italian engineers are delicately dismantling an intricately carved obelisk, piece by ancient piece, and wrapping it for delivery to Ethiopia.

Italy finally is making good on a promise to return the Axum Obelisk, capping decades of bitter dispute over the monument’s fate and home.

The 1,700-year-old obelisk is ranked by UNESCO as an outstanding historic and artistic object and is cherished by Ethiopians. Axum was the cradle of Ethiopian Christianity. Benito Mussolini’s forces seized the 75-foot-tall monument in 1937, during Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, and transported it to Rome as a trophy.

For the last 65 years or so, it has sat in relative obscurity in the polluted, traffic-choked Piazza Porta Capena in southern Rome, outside the former office for African colonies. In this museum of a city, where every corner offers an architectural gem, including 13 ancient Egyptian obelisks, the entry from Axum was hardly considered spectacular.

But to Ethiopians, the obelisk represents much more: Restitution was a matter of validating cultural heritage and obtaining international justice.

A spokeswoman for the Ethiopian Embassy in Rome said her government is delighted that the monument is at last going home. Joy was somewhat tempered, however, by a history of broken promises, so Ethiopian officials are waiting to see that the spire makes it back before declaring the case closed.

The obelisk–actually a stele–is one of three erected by the Akumites in the northern plateau region of Axum in the 4th Century, before they adopted Christianity. The 180-ton granite monument moved to Rome is considered the finest of the series because of its carvings. Geometrical shapes on all four flanks attest to the technical skills of the ancient African people, making it a source of pride.

Emperor Haile Sellassie protested its removal at the time. Ambassadors have raised the issue repeatedly through the decades. Ethiopians joined by art lovers in other countries mounted a petition drive.

Italy’s decision to give back the obelisk is likely to send shock waves through museums from New York to Cairo.

Greece, for example, has for years demanded restitution of the ancient Parthenon Marbles taken to Britain by Lord Elgin in 1811. They are featured in the British Museum in London.

Looting aside, the art world is divided in debate: Leave wonders where they were found, preserving history but limiting the ability of the world to appreciate them. Or, take the objects to museums where more people can view them.

“I think it is appropriate that these artifacts go to where they belong, and not to museums,” said Giuseppe Infranca, an archeological expert who has championed the cause of returning the Axum to Ethiopia. Museums can make do with copies, he argues.

Carved originally from a single piece of granite, the obelisk was brought to Italy in pieces, and that’s the way it is to return.

Several art and archeological experts, including Infranca, object to the government’s decision to chop it into three pieces (“like a salami,” says Infranca), arguing that irreparable damage is being done.

But Federico Croci, manager of the engineering company in charge of the project, said dismantling has been handled with utmost care. There is no other way, he said, by air or by sea, to transport the column.

“This is very complicated,” Croci said. “If we were just going to break it in pieces, [the project] would be easy.”

Instead, crews are using a system of jacks to recreate stresses and tensions inside the obelisk and cause it to separate along existing seams of cement mortar, which are weaker than the rest of the construction, rather than breaking the actual stone.

The first 45-ton upper section was placed in a metal cage-like contraption to protect it, Croci said. It is in a warehouse near the airport, awaiting the rest of the monument.

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