April 10, 2005
"I saw them steal our obelisk"
Here 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 April 10, 2005 1:25 PM