[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]
The Aksum Obelisk Issue
The Aksum Obelisk Issue
by Professor Richard Pankhurst
The dawn of the New Year 2003, affords a suitable time to take stock on the
Obelisk question: to inquire how far the looted stele has moved since
It was erected in Rome by the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in 1937,
and to consider where the question of Ethiopia's looted cultural
heritage stands today.
The Italian Fascist Invasion, and the Emperor's Protest
The Aksum Obelisk issue has its roots, it will be recalled, in Fascist
Italy's unprovoked invasion of Ethiopia, which began on 3 October 1935.
Not wishing to recognise Ethiopia's existence as an independent state,
the Fascists launched their campaign without any
declaration of war, and, to break Ethiopian resistance, made extensive use of
Fascist troops occupied Addis Ababa, on 5 May 1936; and four days
later, on 9 May, Mussolini proudly - but dishonestly - proclaimed the end
of the war, and the creation of a new Roman Empire.
Seeking to emulate the ancient Roman emperors, who had taken so much loot
to Rome, from Egypt and other conquered lands, the Duce gave orders
for the seizure of the obelisk from Aksum and other important artifacts from
Ethiopia. This order was fully in accordance Fascist practice: Pietro
Badoglio, the first Italian Viceroy of Ethiopia, had seized for himself
half the 1,700,000 silver Maria Theresa thalers found in the Bank of
Abyssinia (which enabled him to build a villa in Rome), while his
successor, Rodolfo Graziani, shipped to Italy no less than seventy-nine
cases of loot.
Mussolini planned to erect the Aksum obelisk in Rome on 9 May 1937, the
first anniversary of his declaration of the Fascist Empire. Technical
difficulties, however, delayed this, so the stele was not actually
unveiled until 28 October. The date was no less significant, for it
was the fifteenth anniversary of Mussolini's "March on Rome", i.e. the
suppression of Italian parliamentary democracy, in 1922. That is one of
the reasons why Italian Anti-Fascists have long supported Ethiopia's demand
repatriation of the stele.
One of those who then protested against the obelisk's seizure, in 1937,
was Emperor Haile Selassie, then an exile in Britain, who listed this
act of looting as a major crime committed against his country and
people. His protest was later published in his Autobiography.
The Aksum Obelisk in Rome prior to damage from lightening
The Italian Peace Treaty of 1947, and How it Was Flouted
After Fascist Italy's defeat in World War II, the Post-war Italian
Government signed a Peace Treaty with the victorious United Nations.
Article 37 of this agreement, which came into force on 15 September
1947, stated that it was agreed that:
"Within eighteen months... Italy shall restore all works of art,
religious objects, archives and objects of historical value belonging
to Ethiopia or its nationals and removed from Ethiopia to Italy since 3
The Italian Government accepted the Peace Treaty with remarkable bad
grace. One example may perhaps suffice. By the Peace Treaty, Italy
renounced all its African colonies. Within weeks of signing that
stipulation the Italian Prime Foreign Minister despatched diplomatic
missions all over the world in an effort to re-acquire those same
As for as the obelisk, post-war Italian Governments chose to flout
Italy's Treaty obligation. Though the phrase "objects of historical value",
clearly covered the one-thousand-six-hundred year old stele, the
Italian Government did nothing about its restoration. Just as Fascist Italy
felt that Ethiopia was militarily too weak successfully to resist
invasion, so the post-Fascist Italy seems to have concluded that
Ethiopia was economically too poor to insist in its restitution rights.
Both Italian governments, Fascist and post-Fascist, apparently
Believed that Ethiopia could easily be trampled upon.
Refusing to Answer Ato Emmanuel Abraham
The attitude of the post-war Italian Government is clear from the memoirs
of the then Ethiopian Ambassador to Rome, Ato Emmanuel Abraham. He
records, in his "Reminiscences of My Life". that when he tried to raise the
obelisk question with Mendola, Director-General in the Italian Ministry of
Foreign Affairs, the
latter, ignoring his Government's obligations under the Peace Treaty,
"stared at the floor for about a minute but could not bring himself to
upper one word". Ato Emmanuel was subsequently handed a memorandum
which claimed (falsely) that the obelisk "would be of little use if it
were dismantled again", and that its return to Ethiopia would
"distress the Italian people". The memorandum proposed that the stele
in Rome, with a notice stating that it had been "presented by the
people of Ethiopia to the people of Italy in token of friendship". This
proposed statement was likewise at variance with the facts: the obelisk
was never "presented", by the Ethiopian people, but was looted by
force, as a result of an invasion, carried out with poison-gas and the
deliberate bombing of international Red Cross hospitals and
ambulances: an invasion which had been condemned, almost unanimously, by
on Nations, as well as by the opinion of the world at large.
The Pre-Revolutionary Parliament Spurned
The Italian Government's reluctance to take its Treaty obligations
seriously, not surprisingly, irritated many Ethiopians. One of the
results was that the Ethiopian Parliament passed a strong resolution on
the obelisk, in 1968. It declared that since it was "undesirable to
delay, let alone to neglect, the monument of the history and honour of
the country... members agree that all steps should be taken for the
immediate return of the obelisk... pressure should be applied [on
Italy], by refusing permits to persons coming to the country, by
suspension of trade, and as a last resort by breaking off diplomatic
relations... until the return of the obelisk... Italy should not be
given the honour of a visit by His Imperial Majesty".
Though these words were presumably conveyed to Rome, they had no more
effect that the pleadings of Ato Emmanuel, or the undertaking in the
Peace Treaty itself.
Efforts by the subsequent Derg Government to obtain the obelisk's
repatriation were equally unavailing.
Popular Ethiopian Efforts to Obtain Justice for Ethiopia
After the advent of the EPRDF Government, and the resultant new
political climate, there were many popular manifestations of Ethiopia's
aspirations in relation to the obelisk. A Petition for the stele's
return was for example signed by a former Prime Minister, Lij Mikael
Imru; a former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs,
Dejazmach Zawde Gabre Sellassie; Ethiopia's leading historian, the late
Ato Tekle Tsadiq Mekuria; the leading artist, the Hon. Maitre-Artiste
Afewerk Tekle; the leading playwright Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin; the author
of a former Ethiopian National Anthem, Assefa Gabre Mariam, and many
The Parliament, and the People of Aksum
The Ethiopian Parliament was also spurred to action. After an open
Public Hearing, it passed a unanimous resolution, on 8 February 1996,
demanding the obelisk's return, and instructing the Ethiopian Foreign
Minister to follow up the matter.
Not long after this the people of Aksum, over 14,000 of them, signed
The largest petition ever signed in Ethiopia. It recalled that "our second
largest obelisk was unjustly taken from our city by Fascist Italy", and
demanded its immediate return.
An Official Ethio-Italian Joint Statement
The obelisk question was officially taken up by the Ethiopian
Government in the Spring of 1997, when an Ethiopian Government Delegation
the question of the obelisk in Rome with the Italian Deputy Foreign
Minister, Senator Rino Serri, on 4 March. An official joint
Governmental statement was.issued that day. It declared that the two
parties were "appreciative of the inestimable value of the Aksum
Obelisk to Ethiopia", and "fully cognizant of the positive impact of the
Obelisk's restitution on the friendship between the two countries".
This joint statement went on to declare that the Italian side "appreciated
the central importance that the Ethiopian people and Government attach
to the restitution of the obelisk to Axum", and added:
"This gesture of great significance would set the seal on the renewed
friendship between the two countries and peoples".
The agreement ended with the statement that the obelisk would be
returned "within the current year", i.e. 1997 .
The 1997 date was repeated during the visit to Rome a month later, of
another Ethiopian Delegation, led by Prime Minister Melles Zenawe. A
further Joint Declaration was issued, on 8 April, which declared:
"The Italian Government declared its readiness to shoulder the
responsibility for the restitution of the Obelisk to Axum, to be
carried out in an operation to be completed by the end of 1997".
The statement repeated that the obelisk would be returned "within the
current year", i.e. 1997
These were indeed brave words, but five years later sound a
hollow. The Italian Government had recognised "the central importance
that the Ethiopian people and Government attach to the restitution of
the obelisk to Axum" - but chose to do nothing whatever about it.
Those who felt outraged by this sloth, and apparent indifference to
Ethiopian rights and sensibilities, this included the Ethiopian
National Committee. Meeting on 20 November 2001, it issued a statement that
time required to effect the return of the obelisk does not exceed the
end of the year 2001". The Press, rightly or wrongly quoted Signor
Serri as talking of the obelisk's immediate return, perhaps in January 2001.
Then, in the Spring of 2002 the Obelisk was hit by lightning in Rome. This
happened because the Italian authorities, in erecting it in Rome, had
inserted a steel pin, which attracted lightning to the stele, and seriously
damaged the upper structure. In the excitement which followed the current
Berlusconi government announced - last summer - that it would return at
last return the stele to Ethiopia.
But that was last summer, and still the Obelisk has still not even been
Where Are We Today?
But we are now in the Spring of 2003 - and the obelisk, so far from being
returned in accordance with repeated promises, stands today where Mussolini
put it in 1937. It has not even been dismantled. One should recall that the
stele, in accordance with the Italian Peace Treaty, should have been
returned within 18 months of its coming into force, on 15 September 1947.
In accordance with the bilateral agreements of 1997 it should
have been returned within that same year; and yet, as of today, it not even
Italy's failure to honour either its Treaty obligations or the supposedly
solemn - but apparently entirely cynical - promises of its leaders is a
cause for major disquiet. If the Obelisk story above described is an
honourable one, we must ask what constitutes a flagrant breach of faith,
and callous and indifferent disrespect for the elementary principles of
honesty and justice?
**Professor Richard Pankhurst teaches at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia