Looted Ethiopian obelisk may finally return home

For Ethiopians, it is a revered symbol of a glorious past empire. For some Romans, it is just an eyesore they can’t wait to get rid of.

After half a century of political wrangling and broken promises, it looks like the Axum Obelisk, looted by Benito Mussolini’s troops in 1937, may finally be on its way home.

In July, the Italian government agreed to initiate proceedings aimed at returning the obelisk, a 24-metre-tall, 1 700-years-old granite structure, originally a tomb monument engraved with patterns of windows and doors, to Ethiopia.

A task force has been set up and instructed to study the best way of transporting the 150-ton stele to Africa. The plan is to cut it up into several pieces and fly it to Ethiopia, where it could be erected in its original site, a burial ground in Axum, as soon as next spring.
The operation should cost Italy several million euros, officials said.

Ethiopians are advised to hold their horses. Italy first signed a treaty that compelled its restitution back in 1947, then renewed its pledge in 1956. It never budged. In 1997, Italian newspapers described its restitution as a fait accompli.

Ethiopians printed postage stamps to mark its return, but it stood firm in Rome.

Officials at the Italian Foreign Ministry, however, insist things are different this time. “The political decision has been made, everyone agrees. Now it is in the hands of the experts,” said a ministry representative.

The turning point in the decades-long dispute dates back to last ay, when lighting struck the obelisk and broke chunks of stone off its top.

Ethiopia issued a note of protest, saying it held the Italian government responsible for the damage. In June, parliament passed a resolution declaring that relations with Italy would turn sour and threatened sanctions unless the obelisk was returned promptly to Ethiopia. One month later, the Italian government agreed to honour past accords and give its return the go ahead.

Vittorio Sgarbi, a former deputy minister at the Italian Culture Ministry, has added spice to the affair by arguing that Italy should refuse to return the stele on the grounds that it will be better preserved in Italy than in war-torn Ethiopia.

Addis Ababa has in the past used its failed return as a bargaining chip to obtain money from Rome.

Standing in front of the main entrance of the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a building that formerly housed Mussolini’s Africa headquarters, the Axum obelisk is now wrapped up in scaffolding while the damage caused by lightning is being restored.

Romans have mixed feelings about its return. Cristina, a middle-aged woman who walks her white dog in front of the obelisk each morning, says she can’t wait for the thing to

go.

“I would just take it away and see the end of it. It’s just a waste of money,” she said, referring to the 25 800 euro restoration project currently underway.

But a member of the security staff employed by FAO begs to differ.

“I have been looking at that obelisk for the past 33 years, it is a little piece of my heart. I would be very sorry to see it go,” said the official, who directs traffic entering the FAO building and asked not to be named.

The obelisk is a well-known meeting point among Roman youths. And each Saturday evening, it sees off dozens of faithful who begin their pilgrimage to a Catholic sanctuary south of Rome from there. According to Yuya Oyata, a Japanese on holiday in Rome with his girlfriend, the obelisk “looks good here.” - Sapa-DPA

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