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Ethiopia Angry Over Postponement of Axum Obelisk's Return


Ethiopians say they are shocked and dismayed that the return of their famed Axum obelisk from Italy has once again been postponed. Italy, which took the ancient monument from Ethiopia as a prize of conquest nearly 70 years ago, was supposed to begin delivering the obelisk in sections, starting Wednesday.

A historian at the Addis Ababa University, Richard Pankhurst, says Ethiopians are outraged by what they see as yet another attempt by the Italian government to delay the return of the obelisk to its rightful owners.

Mr. Pankhurst says the people most angered by the delay are the residents of the ancient northern city of Axum, where the 24-meter-high stone pillar was first erected more than 1,700 years ago.

"The people are desolate," he said. "The children had all been rehearsing their celebration, and the news that it was not going to be carried out according to plan has shocked the people of Axum. The Axum obelisk goes back to the very beginning of Ethiopian history, and it is shocking that Italy has failed to honor its obligations for so long."

In 1947, 10 years after Italy's fascist dictator Benito Mussolini took the obelisk to Rome during the country's brief occupation of Ethiopia, Italy signed a pledge to return the monument.

Italy's failure to act became a major source of political tension between the two nations, until last year, when during a state visit by Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi Rome again promised to give back the obelisk.

The date of the monument's return was first set for the end of last month. Because of its size and weight, the 160-metric-ton obelisk had to be broken into three sections, and Italy agreed to deliver it piece-by-piece by cargo plane over a 10-day period. The pillar would be put back together at its original site in Axum.

But Rome pushed back the return date to April 11 and then to April 13.

On Monday, the Italian Culture Ministry said that the first section could not be delivered on time, partly because the airport in Axum does not have a radar to ensure a safe landing for the cargo plane. The ministry says pilots are now waiting for clear weather in the area.

Mr. Pankhurst at the Addis Ababa University says Ethiopians are fast running out of patience.

"Each year, we have had excuse after excuse; that the obelisk is too heavy, that the Ethiopians cannot look after it, that it is better in Italy, and so forth," he said. "I would say the return of the obelisk is needed for three reasons. Firstly, because it is a historic artifact of great importance to Ethiopian history and culture; secondly, the keeping of the obelisk in Rome is the perpetuation of Mussolini's desire to loot Ethiopia; and thirdly, the return of the obelisk, if and when it returns, means a return to international legality, which has been denied by the Italian government for so long."

The obelisk is one of the largest of more than 100 stone monoliths, which were erected in the Third and Fourth centuries, A.D. as funerary markers for members of the aristocracy in Axum.

At the time, Axum was the capital of a mighty kingdom, rivaling Rome, China, and Persia in wealth and prestige.

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