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April 29, 2005

The last-but-one resting place

dsc_0004We ended up getting held up in Axum for a couple of days, thanks largely to Ethiopian Airlines (read all about it on Amber's blog).

The only positive thing to come out of it all was that we had a chance to go down to the obelisk field one last time to see the current resting place of the returned obelisk. The three pieces are being kept behind barbed wire on the ground in front of the northern stellae field. Two days after the big return, crowds were still gathering to have a look. To answer one question from Yacob, it looks like the graffiti scrawled on the bottom of the obelisk in Rome has now been cleaned off.

The original plan was to keep the obelisk pieces in their current location until after the rains ahead of a panned re-erection in September or October. However, a spanner has been thrown into the works.

On the day of the arrival of the third piece (on April 25) UNESCO announced that is had discovered a huge network of ancient tombs under the obelisk field. A string of experts went on to warn that re-erecting the obelisk in its former position could damage this newly-discovered site.

So it is good and bad news for Axum. One one hand, the town could soon have a new tourist attraction - a network of tombs containing all sorts of treasures. On the other, it may have to wait a bit longer to see its obelisk standing tall again.

Posted by aheavens at 7:13 AM

April 26, 2005

Brought to you in full technicolor

Here are the last of my photos of the return of the Axum obelisk. The event was really too big for me to capture on film. But they give an idea of the atmosphere on the streets.

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Posted by aheavens at 4:55 PM

April 25, 2005

It's back

A worker waves the Ethiopian flag as the third and final piece of the Axum obelisk emerges from the Antonov cargo planeThe third and final piece of the Axum obelisk arrived home safe and sound this morning - and sparked some of the most joyful, chaotic celebrations I have ever seen.

We were all back at Axum airport at around 5.30am. This time, the first aircraft to arrive was an Ethiopian Airlines Fokker, carrying Meles Zenawi, the prime minister, and his family. He received the full red carpet treatment, alongside the Abuna (head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church) and the Italian Ambassador, who were both already there. About 20 minutes after that, the silhouette of the Antonov aircraft was back on the horizon.

When it landed a huge crowd - much bigger than for the arrival of the first piece - surged forward to try and get photos. We hung around for about three hours until the third piece (the curved top section) was loaded on to a flat bed truck.

The most surreal thing that happened during that time was the arrival of a third plane - a gleaming white 737 which taxied in and totally dwarfed the prime minister's Fokker. The doors opened and out stepped Mohammed Al Amoudi , Ethiopia's richest man, dressed in casual T-shirt and jacket. He strode over to look at the newly-arrived piece with his entourage - then the other two, then off to wherever VIPs hang out.

He never gives interviews. So I was quite proud of my one quote - "Ethiopian property has returned to Ethiopia".

After that, the press pack headed out of the airport and towards a stage that had been set up on the outskirts of town. All the VIPs were gathered under an awning while various dance troops went through their paces and dignitaries made speeches.

Then everything went mad. The three lorries appeared over the horizon and started driving towards the town centre with their loads covered in Ethiopian flags. The soldiers had to swing their sticks around quite fiercely to keep the crowds back as the trucks passed. Women rushed on to the road to throw popcorn and ululate. Young men clambered onto a fourth truck carrying the obelisk's flat base. In the town itself, people hung off roofs and out of windows to get a look.

Eventually the procession wound its way through town to the northern obelisk field - where Mussolini's soldiers first took the obelisk almost 70 years ago. the engineers started maneuvering their trucks and cranes and started slowly lowering the three pieces on to the ground in front of the existing obelisks. the rain came pelting down but did very little to quell the enthusiasm of the crown which, by this stage, must have been more than 5,000 strong.

In all, an amazing day. When the internet speeds up here a bit, I will add some photos. I have now put a selection up on Flickr. Check back tomorrow for more.

Posted by aheavens at 12:31 PM

April 23, 2005

Back in the Africa hotel

We are back in Axum, booked once more into the Africa Hotel. The town is packed ahead of Monday's expected return of the third and final piece of the obelisk. In fact it is so packed that a few government ministers have had to give up their usual hotel rooms in the more luxurious Yeha and Remhai hotels and move in next to us.

The ministers have got their rooms and en suite bathrooms for 25 birr (about £1.70 or $3) a night. Because we are ferenjis (white foreigners) we are having to stretch to the much more extortionate daily rate of 60 birr. Breakfast complete with fresh mango juice comes extra.

Posted by aheavens at 4:14 PM

Back to Axum

We were in Addis for the return of the second part of the obelisk. Apparently, everything went well. Today, we are flying back to Axum to be there in time for the expected return of the third and final piece on Monday.

We have been told that this will be the big official return, with a welcome from the prime minister at the airport and a triumphal parade of all three pieces through the centre of Axum.

Posted by aheavens at 5:36 AM

Now give us our prince

006691.jpgBritian was yesterday urged to repatriate the remains of a teenage Ethiopian prince more than 125 years after he died lonely and homesick in Leeds.

Netsanet Asfaw, Ethiopia's state minister for information, called on the UK to hand back the body of Prince Alamayou, currently buried in the crypt of St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle.

The minister said the return would trump Italy's recent decision to restore an ancient obelisk looted by its troops during their invasion of the country in 1937.

"I am saying this as a mother," she told reporters. "People say Prince Alamayou died of pneumonia. But I always think it was because he missed his mother."

Prince Alamayou was taken from his country at the age of seven after
Britian's defeat of his father Emperor Tewodros (Theodore) after the
battles of Aroge and Magdala in 1868. (See more on Afromet.org). He first travelled around the Far East under the protection of Captian Tristram Speedy, a British
intelligence officer.

He was later educated in Rugby, then Sandhurst, before dieing at the age of 18 in 1879.

Through his time in the UK he became a great favourite of Queen Victoria who called him "a poor little boy, a dear, gentle, pretty, intelligent little darling of seven years old" after first meeting him. But, over the years, he frequently showed signs of being deeply depressed (see pic).

"He had a hankering after his old country where he said he had two aunts and a half brother living," Sir Stafford Northcote wrote a month before he died. "I told him that his going to Abyssinia was out of the question..."

Posted by aheavens at 5:19 AM

April 20, 2005

The obelisk emerges

Here are some more photos of the arrival of the first piece of the obelisk at Axum airport yesterday. You can see more of them, in a variety of sizes, on Flickr.

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Posted by aheavens at 9:33 AM

Article: Stolen obelisk is returned to Sheba's capital

Here's an article I did in today's Times about the return. If you read the original paper version you will see the map is a little off. Maqdala is actually a long way south of Axum. The paper also did an interesting follow-on article on Ethiopia calling on the UK to follow Italy's lead and return the plundered treasures that it possesses.

Stolen obelisk is returned to Sheba's capital From Andrew Heavens in Axum, Ethiopia AYALEW ASRESE was 14 when he heard that Benito Mussolini's invading Fascist troops had stolen an ancient granite obelisk from his homeland.

Yesterday the 82-year-old Ethiopian watched a new generation of Italians bring home the first part of the 160-tonne monument, which dates from the 3rd century and is thought to be a grave marker for a king from the Axumite Empire.

The bemedalled war veteran was one of hundreds of Ethiopians who crowded on to the tiny runway at Axum to greet the 1,700-year-old national symbol.

They cheered, wept, chanted prayers and waved banners as a huge Antonov 124 cargo aircraft circled, landed and open- ed its nose cone to reveal the first section of the 78ft column.

“Today the Italians have finished their war. Most of my friends from that time have died. They did not see this day. I am the lucky one,” said Mr Asrese, who signed up as a teenager to resist the invasion before the Second World War.

“The news that the Italians had taken our obelisk came through to us quickly,” he recalled. “For me, it just made me fight them harder.”

The return marked the end of a dispute between Italy and Ethiopia that began when Mussolini ordered that the obelisk be brought to Rome as a war trophy in 1937. It was hauled away in three pieces and erected near the Circus Maximus, outside the building that Mussolini had designed as his ministry for the African colonies.

In 1947, after Italy had been defeated in the war, Rome promised to return all property plundered from Ethiopia but failed to do so. Agreement was reached only after Ethiopia threatened to sever diplomatic relations two years ago.

The return was a cause for celebration in Axum. Schools had the day off, trees were festooned with flags and church bells pealed. The obelisk was among the finest of more than 120 that once stood in the dusty town that was the capital of the mighty pre-Christian Axumite Empire and where the Queen of Sheba once ruled.

“I'm so happy,” Netsanet Asfaw, the Information Minister, said after the landing. “This is the day my parents waited for. This is the day we have all been waiting for.”

Another group with a reason to celebrate was the team of Ethiopian and Italian engineers who had the task of dismantling the obelisk in Rome and transporting it.

“It wasn't just an issue of dealing with the weight. This was a very fragile piece of stone,” Simone Lattanzi, the technical director of the engineering group Lattanzi SRL, said.

Before the flight, engineers supported the carved stone in a metal casing and installed equipment to protect against turbulence. They monitored the temperature around Axum to ensure that the Antonov could support the 58-tonne section in the thin atmosphere of the Ethiopian highlands.

The engineers took more than four hours to hoist the section on to a lorry with two cranes. The section will remain under armed guard at the airport until the rest of the obelisk arrives in the next ten days.

Italy is footing the €6 million (£4.08 million) bill for the operation. Unesco archaeologists are surveying the obelisk's original site on the edge of Axum in preparation for its re-erection in September.

Posted by aheavens at 9:24 AM

April 19, 2005

The obelisk has landed

dsc_0046This is a very quick note to say that the first part of the obelisk has arrived in Axum. We were all at the airport at 5am, waiting for the light to come and the Antonov cargo plane to arrive. When it did turn up, there was a spontaneous round of applause from the crowd - ministers hugging ministers and a bit of gentle ululating.

In a way, the chaos of the past few days did some good. There was no time to organise a formal welcoming reception with prime ministers and presidents. Instead, it just happened. Everyone just hung around on the edge of the tarmac and rushed over to the plane when it landed - despite the best efforts of the guards.

Then it was a four-hour wait for the joint Ethiopian-Italian team of engineers to roll the obelisk section down a ramp and then hoist it up in the air with the help of two 60-tonne cranes and on to a flat lorry. It was quite a technical feat - as the engineers kept assuring everyone. As far as it was possible to tell, the obelisk was in good shape after its long trip. It is now under guard at the airport waiting for the other two pieces to arrive.

If all goes to plan, they should all be paraded through town in 10 days or so. Then we can start the long wait to find out how and where it will be re-erected. I'll post more stuff tomorrow, including an article which should be in The Times. I have also uploaded some pics on Flickr - see link top right.

Posted by aheavens at 4:37 PM

April 14, 2005

The stalled celebration

Here are some photos from Axum over the past few days. They are mainly of the celebrations building up in the town before news of the delay came through. The latest rumours are that the obelisk will be arriving on Sunday or Monday, just under a week late. But the only thing I have learned for definite during the past week is that no one knows anything.

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Posted by aheavens at 8:04 PM

Still waiting #3

Amsale Sibhu leant back on his wooden bench outside St Mary of Zion church in Ethiopia's ancient town of Axum and raised his hands in resignation.

"Yesterday was so joyful. We were ready to dance all through the night," said the Orthodox Christian theology teacher. "The priests had rehearsed all their songs and their chants.

"Then at 11 o'clock I heard the news that our obelisk was not coming back. Everyone was so sad."

Amsale Sibhu had spent the past week counting the days until the return of a 140-ton obelisk from Italy, almost 70 years after it was stolen from their town by Mussolini's invading fascist troops. He had taken to the streets every night to watch a string of candle-lit parades, dancing displays and other cultural events, all designed to celebrate the historical homecoming.

Yesterday morning, he was also one of thousands of Axumites left desperately disappointed when their 1,700-year-old obelisk simply failed to appear.

The return was due to take place at 4am at the town's newly-renovated airport, close to Ethiopia's contested border with Eritrea. According to plans carefully laid out over the past year and a half, the top part of the obelisk should have arrived in the hold of a Russian-made Antonov aircraft, carefully packed into a crate.

It should have been officially welcomed by Ethiopia's prime minister Meles Zenawi and paraded through the streets, lined with joyful Axum citizens. (The two remaining parts were due to arrive over the next 10 days ahead of a reconstruction and re-erection of the entire monument later in the year.)

Instead, late on Monday, the country's Ministry of Youth Culture and Sport was forced to release an announcement written in the local language of Tigrinian saying that the return has been postponed for a number of unspecified technical reasons.

The prime minister's plane was called off. Scores of international journalists who had planned to cover the event cancelled their tickets. Hundreds of tents erected to house an army of circus performers and brass band musicians were pulled down.

Italian authorities, the statement said, had raised some last minute logistical issues which meant the return was now postponed indefinitely.

The statement was short on specific detail, Ethiopian ministers said yesterday, because the Italians had given them little specific detail.

"The Italians are not telling us anything," said Netsanet Asfaw, Ethiopia's state minister for information yesterday morning. "We don't know what is going on any more."

"I do not know enough to give you any details," said Ambassador Teshome Toga, Ethiopian minister for youth, culture and sports and chair of the national committee coordinating the return of the obelisk. "We have not been given an explicit explanation why the flight was delayed. Everything is in place at our end to receive the obelisk."

The Italian Embassy in Addis Ababa yesterday declined to comment. Off the record, officials in Italy were more talkative, putting a large chunk of the blame at the feet of the Ethiopians. The Ethiopian government had jumped the gun naming Wednesday April 13 as the return date, said one. There was still a host of technical details to settle, said another. There was no radar system at the airport to guide in the plane. They were still unsure whether the approaching road was strong enough to take the load.

Meanewhile in Axum, the town's citizens were left picking up the pieces.

"There has already been a 70-year delay," said Like Huryan Abay Legesse, a highly-respected chanter at St Mary of Zion. "It was the same in 1963, during Emperor Hail Selassie's time. The Emperor proclaimed that people must stand by in Axum for the return of the stellae [obelisk]. But nothing happened.

"The same thing happened during the Derg (the Marxist regime that overthrew the Emperor). But no one believed them. Now we are afraid the stellae will never arrive."

The returning obelisk is one of several hundred funeral monoliths set up in Axum during the mighty pre-Christian Axumite empire. It was taken on the orders of Mussolini and erected in Rome as a fascist battle trophy.

Posted by aheavens at 7:59 PM

April 13, 2005

Indiana Jones was wasting his time

dsc_0046Indiana Jones was wasting his time. There was no need for him to start raiding the lost ark in Egypt or Jordan or wherever those Harrison Ford films were set. As any Ethiopian Orthodox Christian will tell you, the original Ark of the Covenant is right here in Axum. It is actually said to be in this church.

Not surprisingly, you are not allowed to see it. The only man with that right is the "keeper" – a secretive man in the yellow robe who ducked into the church as soon as he saw my camera. Last year, the church authorities had to surround the building with a spiky fence after a Hungarian tourist tried to jump over the existing barrier to get in to the church and its holy of holies. Given the current interest in things like the Ark – sparked by pseudo-history books like the Blood and the Grail or whatever it is called – it is surprising they don't get more attempts.

I am a bit hazy about exactly how the Ark ended up here. I think it is something to do with the Queen of Sheba's visit to King Solomon. She – or her retinue – or her son with King Solomon brought it back to Ethiopia where it has stayed ever since. Perhaps someone out there could flesh out the story.

Posted by aheavens at 1:51 PM

Still waiting #2

Today was the day that Italy was supposed to have returned Axum's long-awaited obelisk, almost 70 years after it was stolen by Mussolini's fascist soldiers. I am now sitting in an internet café looking out into the Axum's main street. So far there is no sign of it.

That is really not surprising. Italy announced there would be a delay a couple of days ago. What they forgot to do was to explain the reasons for the delay.

I have just come of the phone to Ethiopia's ministers for Information and Culture. Amazingly, the Italians have not bothered to explain the delay to them either.

"We have not been given any explicit explanation why it has been delayed," said Ambassador Teshome Toga, minister for youth, sports and culture.

Posted by aheavens at 8:59 AM

April 12, 2005

The bit they left behind

dsc_0038The Italians were not very thorough when they took the obelisk from Ethiopia back in 1937. They removed the four or five main pieces. But, according to the UNESCO archaeologists I met on the site yesterday, they left this piece behind. It is part of the curved top of the obelisk. The man sitting next to it is Jim Williams, a senior programme specialist at UNESCO.

Apparently the square hole was used to fix a brass sun and moon shaped mask onto the front of the monument – to make it shine out at the top.

The Italians filled in the gap with a carved piece of stone in Rome which was later dislodged by a lightening strike. It wasn't the only missing piece. Again according to the archaeologists, on the way to the Red Sea port of Massowa in 1937, the truck carrying the bottom part proved too heavy for a bridge. They ended up hacking off part of the obelisk's rough foundation to get in across. It now lies somewhere at the bottom of an Eritrean ravine.

The UNESCO team is currently surveying the obelisk site to prepare a report on whether it would be safe to re-erect the returned obelisk in its old site. The whole area is riddles with tombs and buried passages that could, in theory, collapse if subjected to any extra weight.

Posted by aheavens at 1:54 PM

Still waiting

The inevitable has happened and the return of the obelisk has been delayed once again. If it was my town I would be spitting. But Ethiopians are a pretty restrained, polite bunch.

Everyone just shrugs their shoulders, says "it is very bad" and carries on with daily life. They have been disappointed before after all. The last time the obelisk was supposed to come back, the country issued a set of stamps. Then ... nothing.

It has still come as a bit of a shock though. There have been big marches and events every day up to now. Yesterday, every schoolchild in the region walked through town singing, waving homemade banners and models of the obelisk. (I will post pics later today). There are flags flying from every shop and house. Up until late yesterday afternoon, they were still erecting tents in the town's central school playing fiends and preparing to welcome the Prime Minister and the President. Today, just anti-climax.

There are rumours that it may still come on Friday. Others say the delay is "indefinite". Nobody - not even the officials who are supposed to be organising it all - seems to know.

Posted by aheavens at 8:39 AM

April 10, 2005

You leave Addis for one day...

This all apparently happened rather close to our house. The last time a bomb was found in Addis (January last year - on a truck) it was blamed on a group called the Oromo Liberation Front. I wonder if there are going to be more of these incidents in the run up to the election.

Ethiopia's security forces defuse explosive devices in public bus - Xinhuanet Apr 9

Security forces have defused two explosive devices, planted in a public bus in Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, police said Saturday.

The explosive device was made with C4 explosive, the Ethiopian Federal Police Commission said in a press release.

One of the explosives was fitted under one of the seats of the bus and the other beside a seat in the bus that commuted between terminals at Kazzanchis and Merkato sub-cities on Friday.


Posted by aheavens at 3:19 PM

"I saw them steal our obelisk"

axum_1Here is an article I wrote for Scotland on Sunday when it all seemed hopeful in Axum. Abebe Alemyehu is one of the few residents of Axum old enough to remember the Italians coming through the town in 1937 to take the obelisk. He has become increasingly popular with journalists since the news came out that the obelisk might be coming back. Just this week, I have seen him out with a French film crew. When the piece actually does return he is going to be flooded with interview requests. Apparently there is one other old-timer with the same memories. But, for some reason, he does not like the press.

Ethiopians celebrate return of 160-ton 'souvenir' from Italy

ABEBE Alemyehu was 12 when he watched Benito Mussolini's soldiers storm into the Ethiopian town of Axum to steal its ancient obelisk.

Now the 81-year-old is preparing to go out on the streets near his family compound once again, as a new generation of Italians bring the sacred monument back.

Later this month, Italy is due to return the first part of the 24m high 160-ton tower of granite, almost 70 years after its soldiers seized it during fascist Italy's brief occupation of Ethiopia in the build-up to the Second World War.

The return will mark the end of a bitter feud between Italy and the impoverished East African country, which has spent decades campaigning for the repatriation of a national symbol.

Ethiopian campaigners also plan to use the event to increase pressure on a host of other European institutions, including the British Museum, National Archives of Scotland and Edinburgh University Library, to hand back plundered Ethiopian treasures in their collections.

"The Ethiopian people have waited so long for the return," Teshome Toga, Ethiopia's minister of youth, culture and sport said. "There has been a very continuous and sustained struggle to get back our heritage. At last it seems we have a light at the end of the tunnel."

Thousands of Ethiopian priests and dignitaries are expected to pour into the northern Ethiopian town to welcome the monument, thought to have been erected as an imperial grave marker as far back as the 3rd century AD.

Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia's prime minister, and Girma Wolde Giorgis, its president, will be among the guests of honour on the return of the obelisk - as will Abebe Alemyehu, one of only a small handful of people who can still bare witness to the original theft.

Abebe remembers watching as a gang of Italian soldiers started hauling the intricately-carved obelisk along the streets of the dusty town, once the capital of the mighty pre-Christian Axumite Empire.

"We used to come and play around the Italians every morning because there was no school. They were quite open to us. But they kept the adults back, sometimes with whips," said the retired government official, who still lives a 10-minute walk away from the obelisk's original home on the edge of the town.

He can still remember the silent despair of his parents and friends. "They were covering their faces so the Italians couldn't see them crying," he said.

"I saw it when it departed from Axum, and, if God permits, I will see it when it comes back. I am very, very happy."

The obelisk was seized as a war trophy on the orders of Mussolini in 1937. Soldiers dragged it out of Axum and transported it to Rome via ship and train. They then erected it at the centre of a busy road junction in the Piazza di Porta Capena, not far from the Coliseum, to act as a symbol of fascist Italy's new empire in Africa. Those dreams died after Italy's defeat in the Second World War.

But Rome held on to the monument, despite promising to dismantle and return it in international treaties signed in 1947 and 1997. The Italian government finally agreed to take down the obelisk in October 2003 after a concerted campaign of petitions, letters and banner-waving protests led by politicians and academics.

Richard Pankhurst, son of the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst and a history professor at Addis Ababa University, said that Italy's decision should encourage other holders of Ethiopian loot to follow suit.

"I think you can't return a piece of stone weighing more than 100 tons without it having implications.

"I think it will have implications for the return of Ethiopian loot taken by the British as well as by the Italians. But also for the return of loot taken by colonial powers from other parts of the world."

A number of Ethiopian manuscripts and other treasures currently on display in institutions like National Archives of Scotland and Edinburgh University Library were originally taken from Ethiopia during the British invasion of the country in 1868.

Posted by aheavens at 1:25 PM

Pankhurst on the obelisk

DSC_0038Here is an interview my wife Amber did with Richard Pankhurst - son of suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst and leading campaigner for the return of the Axum Obelisk. It has got all the background on the obelisk - how it was stolen and why people think it should come back. It appeared first in the Sub Saharan Informer (still no website). The pic shows Richard with one of his many models of the obelisk in his study in Addis Ababa. He will be up here as a guest of honour on Wednesday.

Could you give us some background about how the obelisk ended up in Italy?

Mussolini in the early 30s was trying to establish what he considered a new Roman Empire. He knew that the emperors of ancient Rome had taken obelisks from Egypt. He wanted to do the same. And he gave orders that one of the famous historic Axum obelisks dating back to the early Christian era should be taken to Rome and it was arranged that it should be inaugurated on the 15th anniversary of his march on Rome, that is ti say his seizure of power in Italy. And it was placed in front of what was to be the Ministry of Italian Africa.

Your mother Sylvia Pankhurst brought the theft of the obelisk to the public's attention in the 1930s. Can you tell me how she first got involved with Ethiopia and its obelisk?

She had studied art in Italy and in 1919 she saw the Fascists fighting their way to power. She saw them beating up the public and became almost overnight an anti-fascist. She felt that Italy was the first victim of Fascism and there would be others. When the invasion of Ethiopia started in 1935 she founded a newspaper in defense of Ethiopia, a weekly newspaper in London called the New Times and the Ethiopia News. In that paper she published a picture of the obelisk and a statement by Emperor Haile Selassie that the taking away of the obelisk was one of many crimes carried out by Fascist Italy in Ethiopia.

When did you first get involved in campaigning for the obelisk's return?

Coming to Ethiopia to teach Ethiopian history, I was studying the period of the Italian occupation and wrote an article for the French journal Presence Africaine on the loot from Ethiopia, telling my old friend a former Senator Berhanu Tessema about this, he told me that the parliament was protesting the non-return of the obelisk. I published the resolution of the Parliament. However, not much could be done at that time. It was really not until 1991, which was the 50th anniversary of the Fascist collapse in East Africa, that the Italian left wing newspaper L'Unita asked me to write an article in May 1991 which was the first exposition for the case of the return of the obelisk. Several Italian thinkers then became involved writing a letter asking for the return in the Italian journal La Republica and immediately after that three Italian scholars wrote a petition asking for the obelisk to be sent back to Ethiopia. I happened to be in Italy at that time. I brought the news of this petition to Addis Ababa and somew 500 prominent Ethiopians signed a petition asking for the return of the obelisk and following on from the request by the three Italian scholars.

Why do you think it is so important for the obelisk to be returned to Ethiopia?

I think really for three reasons. Firstly, it brings us back to the origins of Ethiopian civilization. It is important in terms of Ethiopian history. Secondly because it is for the first time a recognition by Italy that it should honour its treaty obligations and not treat Ethiopia as a second class country. For example, when the invasion of Ethiopia took place in 1935, it took place without any declaration of war. In other words Fascist Italy did not consider Ethiopia worth dealing with. And then thirdly, it means that as far as Italy is concerned, what was in effect a Fascist symbol as it was put up to commemorate Mussolini's seizure of power, is removed.

What does it mean to you personally for the obelisk to be returned after all these years of campaigning?

Well, it gives one a certain degree of satisfaction to see that justice has at last triumphed. On the other hand, it is an incomplete return because other artifacts have not been returned. Most notably in Rome you still have part of Ethiopia's national archives - the so-called Ministry of the Pen archives. And the airplane Sahai (**), called after Emperor Haile Selassie's daughter during his time. That is wanted as part of the decoration of the new Addis Ababa airport. And Italy has so far refused to return it. So it is satisfaction marred by the fact that Italy has failed to return all that it should return.

Do you think that the return of the obelisk will help strengthen Ethiopia's case to get other stolen treasures returned by countries like the UK?

I think you can't return a piece of stone weighing more than 100 tons without it having implications. I think it will have implications for the return of Ethiopian loot taken by the British as well as by the Italians. But also for the return of loot taken by colonial powers from other parts of the world.

What do you thing this return will mean for "ordinary" Ethiopians?

I think it will be a source of satisfaction that the international community in the shape of Italy has at last honored an obligation. And that Ethiopia receives an important piece of its heritage. And after all it is a recognition of Ethiopia's status. If Italy had madfe an agreement with France or Britain to return something in 1947, I can't believe that they would have kept a European power waiting for almost 70 years.

Posted by aheavens at 12:55 PM

Live from Axum

dsc_0054This week, I'm in Axum - the northern Ethiopian town that was once the capital of the mighty pre-Christian Axumite Empire. The main reason is to report on the return of an ancient obelisk that was stolen from Ethiopian by invading Italian troops almost 70 years ago (see past posts).

The Italians are supposed to fly the first part in the early hours of Wednesday morning, although no one is entirely sure of the exact delivery time. The date has been shifting for the past two months. Even yesterday - just after I arrived in town - there were rumours that the whole thing was going to be delayed for 10 days. We shall see.

If it is delayed again (they have already waited 70 years) there will be a huge uproar. Things are already building up in Axum. Most of the shops have national flags up outside. There are banners flying from street corners welcoming the obelisk and thanking the government for bringing it back (an election is coming).

Last night about half the town turned out for a joyful candle-lit march around the town with banners, chanting, singing and dancing. (See pic). The internet connection is too slow to upload pics. I'll put them up next week back in Addis. (UPDATE: I've now found a faster connection so the pics should soon be appearing on Flickr - see link top right). This morning there was a 10k run. Some time tomorrow there will be a display of traditional dancing.

In short, everyone is getting very excited.

Posted by aheavens at 12:40 PM

April 7, 2005

Holding hands

A recent visitor was talking about how impressed she was with the open-mindedness of Ethiopian society. It was nice to hear. But what what precisely did she mean?

Well, she meant just how open-minded it was about homosexuality. You could walk down any street and see men walking in couples hand in hand. There were men holding hands, men leaning on each other, arms draped round each other's shoulders. And no one gave them a second look.

It was an easy mistake to make. If you see two men holding hands in the UK or the US, it is a reasonable assumption to make that they are gay.

Here, of course, it means no such thing. Men hold hands in Ethiopia in the same way that they drunkenly punch each other on the shoulder in pubs in Britain. It is a casual expression of mateyness (spelling?). Nothing more.

It is ironic that this acceptance of public displays of male affection does not actually go along with an acceptance of homosexuality. People I've spoken to about it in Addis tend to have two attitudes on the subject.

The first is that they just don't think about it very much. One Ethiopian woman with a fairly senior job in an NGO (translation: non governmental organisation - i.e. a charity) out here assured me homosexuality was a foreign import. There was no such thing as a naturally gay Ethiopian. If any Ethiopians were gay, she said, it was a condition they had "caught" from visiting foreigners.

The other attitude I have come across it straight-out hostility. The clearest example of this came in an editorial in The Addis Tribune, the country's oldest English-language weekly. It's headline said it all - "An abomination". I can't link to it because, for some reason, the paper has removed it from its website. But you can guess its contents. Also missing is the storm of correspondence it caused on the Tribune's letters page. Opinion was divided. Letters from expatriate Ethiopians in the US and Europe condemned the editorial. Letters from Ethiopians in Ethiopia were fully supportive.

Given that level of unashamed hostility, it is perhaps no surprise that the Yahoo! Groups page dedicated to Gay Ethiopians urges caution with the message: PLEASE DO NOT POST,REAL NAMES,PHONE NUMBERS,GAY SPOTS OR HANGOUTS IN ADDIS OR OTHER PARTS OF ETHIOPIA.

Posted by aheavens at 5:56 AM

April 1, 2005

ARTICLE: Smuggled Ethiopian treasures sold on eBay

Here is my first article for the Sub Saharan Informer - published here because the paper, as yet, does not have a website.

Ebay, the world's biggest online marketplace, was this week accused of allowing the sale of smuggled Ethiopian treasures on its website.

Academics said they had evidence that holy historic crosses - and at least one sacred manuscript - were being auctioned off through eBay despite an Ethiopian government ban on the export of cultural and religious antiques.

Elizabeth Giorgis, acting director of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa University, said she was writing to eBay directors to demand they block the sales. "It is totally inappropriate for a company like eBay to be selling these smuggled treasures," she added.

"They are in effect encouraging people to rob the country of its cultural heritage. They have a moral obligation to protect these objects."

Giorgis decided to speak out after being contacted by a number of Ethiopians in the US who had seen a number historical Ethiopian objects for sale on the website.

In one case, an eBay seller claimed he had tracked down a priest's gospel and a collection of silver crosses belonging to a cash-strapped family living in Ethiopia. He justified his high price for the items because of the difficulties arising from Ethiopia's export restrictions.

In the seller's description, he stated: "Due to current Ethiopian government export restrictions, no gospels or silver crosses are now allowed to be legally taken out of Ethiopia and for this reason the offering price is extremely reasonable and not nearly the premium that should be asked for such a valuable and rare Ethiopian religious relic of museum quality."

EBay currently has strict guidelines banning people from using its site to sell artefacts from the USA's Native American and Hawaiian populations. But the company has no similar guidelines relating to historic items from other cultures from outside North America.

"This is a clear case of double standards," said Giorgis. "Why go out of your way to protect items from your own country but do nothing to protect African treasures?"

She also questioned whether eBay has set up strong enough safeguards to prevent the sale of illegally smuggled goods via its servers. She urged it to follow the lead of bricks-and-mortar auctioneers like Christies or Sothebys who have to check the background of antiques before offering them to the public.

Giorgis was backed up by the Institute's Professor Richard Pankhurst, who is also vice chair of AFROMET (www.afromet.org) - an organization dedicated to retrieving hundreds of priceless treasures taken during the British invasion of Ethiopia in 1868.

"Unless they get permission to export these items, the sellers are breaking the law," said Pankhurst. "It is only because of the relative poverty of Ethiopia - and the high prices being offered for these objects, that is happening at all."

Hand-written goatskin bibles, prayer books and colourful illuminations dating as far back as the 17th century currently exchange hands for up to $3,900 a piece on the popular website. Many of the items are modern - and therefore exempt from export restrictions.

But the Sub Saharan Informer found at least one other case of a seller claiming to have bought an antique manuscript inside Ethiopia before exporting it to America.

Ebay was not avaialble to comment on this story as the Sub Saharan Informer went to press.

Posted by aheavens at 11:10 AM

What a week

On Monday, I started doing shifts for a regional paper out here called the Sub-Saharan Informer (no website yet). My new job has coincided with a highly unusual rush of big stories in Ethiopia.

I know it is lazy blogging to just list a bunch of headlines. But, for just this once, here is a run-down of some of the things that have been going on over the past few days.

Thursday

Ethiopia expels US poll officials - BBC

Ethiopia and Eritrea in Danger of War Again, U.N. Says - Reuters

Russia writes off Ethiopian debt - Businessweek

Nobel laureate proposes poverty tax on flights - IRIN

Wednesday

Israeli Ambassador Shot in Ethiopia - Officials - Reuters

Tuesday

ETHIOPIA: Fraudulent voter registration reported - IRIN

Prof Wangari Maathai to head new AU body - IRIN

And one top of that comes the Sub-Saharan Informer's scoop (more a scoopette) about eBay being accused of allowing the sale of smuggled Ethiopian treasures on its website. I will post that as soon as I get the copy.

Posted by aheavens at 9:26 AM