October 20, 2004

The Ethiopian Tabots hidden in the British Museum

Posted at 1:55 pm in Similar cases

Eleven tablets, taken from Ethiopia by the British, now sit in a vault at the British Museum, but none of the staff there, including the director are allowed to see them.

The Independent

Hidden in a British Museum basement: the lost Ark looted by colonial raiders
By Terry Kirby, Chief Reporter

19 October 2004

On a shelf in a locked basement room underneath the British Museum, are kept 11 wooden tablets; they are covered in purple velvet. And no one among the museum’s staff – including Neil MacGregor, the director – is permitted to enter the room.

The tablets – or tabots – are sacred objects in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the most important of the 500 or so priceless Magdala treasures, looted by Britain from Ethiopia in 1868 and now held in this country. For almost two decades, the only people allowed access have been Ethiopian church clergy; it is considered sacrilegious for anyone else to see them.

Amid growing calls for the return of the treasures, the British Museum has moved them from an anonymous storage site to its Bloomsbury main building and announced that it is considering loaning them to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in London on what would be a permanent basis. They are regarded as representing the original Ark of the Covenant, which housed the Ten Commandments and the Orthodox Church has been lobbying for their return – or at least easy access to them – for more than 50 years.

Handing them over – even on loan – would be considered a major breakthrough and increase pressure for the remainder to be returned.

The BM and the two other institutions with large Magdala collections, the Victoria & Albert Museum and the British Library, are reassessing their treasures and holding informal talks, although legally they cannot be simply be handed back. But as a sign of the seriousness with which the museum is taking the case for restitution, Mr MacGregor recently visited Addis Ababa to hear the arguments. The case has parallels to the Elgin Marbles, the return of which the Greek government has been demanding for decades.

A spokeswoman for the British Museum said: “We have had some initial discussions over their future. The idea of their loan to the church is one suggestion that we hope we can move further forward.” A loan, renewable every five years, circumvents the legal problems of returning artefacts, which has only previously happened with Nazi-era items. The museum also said that the tabots would have to remain in London since there is nowhere in Ethiopia with the required environmental and security standards.

The acquisition of the Magdala treasures was a murky episode in the museum’s history. In 1867, a British force was sent to Ethiopia to free hostages taken by Emperor Tewodros; after defeat at the Battle of Magdala, he committed suicide. Extensive looting of the imperial treasures ensued and Richard Holmes, a museum curator sent specifically to locate items, obtained 80 objects taken by British soldiers; others found their way to the museum through bequests.

As well as the tabots, the haul included ceremonial crosses, chalices, processional umbrella tops, textiles and jewellery.

The tabots have been held for many years at a warehouse in east London, but after Mr Macgregor’s visit they were moved to the museum. The museum said this was partially a practical necessity but said it was also designed to assure the Ethiopians of the respect in which they were held. The Art Newspaper has disclosed that, in a sign of the aura surrounding them, they were suitably covered for the move and carried by a member of the Ethiopian church. Alone inside the room, the priest placed the cloth-wrapped tabots on a shelf and covered them with purple velvet, before locking the door.

The V&A holds more than 50 items, including a gold crown, a chalice, a shield, a silver cross and the dress worn by the emperor’s widow, Queen Terunesh.

The British Library holds 350 manuscripts from Magdala. Other artefacts are held in the Royal Collection, including manuscripts housed in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle and by the universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge, many remain in private hands.

During Tony Blair’s recent visit to Addis Ababa, members of the Association for the Return of the Magdala Ethiopian Treasures, pressed a petition into the hands of his aides. Its founder, Professor Richard Pankhurst, son of the suffragette campaigner Sylvia Pankhurst, said: “The quantity of books and manuscripts taken amounted to the equivalent of both Ethiopia’s national library and national archives.”

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  1. Essaias Demissie Akalu said,

    06.22.09 at 6:20 pm

    Please retun all looted Ethiopian artefacts.Ethiopia had lost many valuable tabots and treasures during, before and after the reign of Emperor Thewodros. May be some of them are not available in Ethiopia at all now. As we all know, it is possible to fabricate them now in a better shape and in a better appearance and design. But, these can not represent the mentality and atristic creation of the generation of the time and the people’s history. No nation will appreciate the acting of stealing its history.The same is true with Ethiopia.
    However, these sentiments are the prime movers to negotiate not only with the British government but with other European governments which have taken our artefacts. I hope the British Governement can go ahead and return all the rest. If you do so, the Ethiopian people will appreciate.

  2. Kylie said,

    09.06.09 at 1:53 am

    I think that this website was very helpful for the history assignment that i had. It also helped me to understand that people are suffering from stolen cultural items. Thankyou to whoever wrote about this. Namus Day.!!!!!!!!

  3. Tehuti Raa said,

    04.13.10 at 7:57 pm

    I am in complete agreement that it should not be only Uk that Afrika address for retirn of stolen artifacts but with all other European governments who have taken our artefacts. There is no douby that the British Governement must return these stolen artifacts. When they do this all Afrikans will respect them.

  4. Dr. E. Sinclair said,

    12.28.10 at 10:40 am

    Is there anything that monarchy will not steal from African. They have stolen our Inheritance, not just this treasure, I mean the big inheritance, the BIG one the LION of JUDAH. When the Basic Instruction Before Leaving Earth (BIBLE) said the scepter shall never leave Judah. Wake up the real inheritance they stole is the scepter of Judah. and they continue to steal to make sure we never find out . by robbing African of our GOD GIVEN INHERITANCE Remember the UNIVERSITY OF CUSH/KUSH. Remember the BIBLE did not start at Genesis it starts right after the empty white page where King James said ;I KING JAMES THE HIGH AND MIGHTY” and GOD said Let there be Light, and after God made everything they cant lie about the things we can see and feel to sustain the man he created and said ” THAT WAS GOOD” And he entered the rest. After that came the LORD King JAMES and his interbreeding mama and all their descendants to secure what they stole.I thought GOD was the High and Mighty anyway. They put in place their church to collect read that again, and after that they said God REGRET making man NO God never regret making man he said ” THAT WAS GOOD” The LORD regret God CREATED BLACK MAN. There is a difference between being created and being made. You can make copies but you create original Think AFRICANS. Where you made of CREATED and who was the LET US MAKE MAN was God talking to. SOME OF US WERE MADE AND SOME WERE CREATED remember that.BLACK in not bad Black is good Black is foundation which things are build upon. IN THE BEGINNING DARKNESS WAS UPON THE EARTH. How do you take your coffee, human in it’s raw form is BLACK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! THEN YOU ADD COLOR, sugar, flavoring. even in nature plain white is east to get damage, look at you white pants and your BLACK pants white get on Black you can wipe it off,, BLACK get on white you have to change.

  5. Dave said,

    10.23.15 at 7:44 am

    We should be thankful toward them they kept it for century with out intact. The antiquity wouldn’t survive if they were in the hands of Ethiopian/African for so many reasons. I think the antiquities should still be kept there because we still didn’t have the mentality of how this items are valuable especially “our leaders mentality” isn’t grown enough to think so. Am saying this because they kept it for century and they able to keep it for the next century even for millennium. But us? We can’t even kept the statue of Abune Petros for some decades on its original place. Sadly the new generation will grow up with out the opportunity to know/learn about any of his history.,

  6. dan said,

    06.01.19 at 8:57 pm

    Dear Mr. Jeffery,
    It was with great sadness and some anger that I read about your shameful exclusion of the Ethiopian Clerics. Your participation in extending post-Colonial agonies for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is not
    something I expected to witness in the 21st Century. I guess as a Roman Catholic, it should come as no a surprise that the Church of England, in it’s short history should act like this, for we too have suffered for our faith.

    The Protestant Church of England has no moral authority here.

    Do you think the looting of such important spiritual artefacts in the 1860s out-trumps a powerful and profound Christian tradition that dating back to the 1st Century AD?
    Mr. Jeffery, do you fall to your knees in reverential prayer at the Tabot?
    Do they heal your soul and speak to you?
    Do you think the physical persecution of Christians (Especially in Northern Africa/Egypt & Middle East) would be alleviated somewhat by their return?
    Do you feel you are an adequate curator of these profoundly mystical Christian relics, and if so, is this not at odds with the strain of Christianity you claim to represent?

    These Tabot are Prisoners of your Holy Place, Hidden, Covered, not Revered, utilised not a jot by your faithful. They were stolen in an the age of over-arching English Power, but God’s law transcends your petty Earthly rulings.

    Why not do what you know to be right, and return them to a People who will use them, care for them, love them as they help deepen their faith and tradition.

    If an earthly king – our tsar – wrote you a letter, would you not read it with joy? Certainly, with great rejoicing and careful attention. The King of heaven has sent a letter to you, an earthy and mortal man: yet you almost despise such a gift, so priceless a treasure. Whenever you read the Gospel, Christ Himself is speaking to you. And while you read, you are praying and talking with Him.”
    Tikhon of Zadnosk (1724-1783)

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