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Britain to Return Plundered Ethiopian Treasure - 2003-09-17

One of Ethiopia's historical treasures - a centuries-old, handwritten Book of Psalms - is returning from London to Ethiopia. The 300-year-old book was taken by British troops when they ransacked the village of Magdala in the 1868 invasion of Ethiopia.

The Association for the Return of the Magdala Ethiopian Treasures has made it its mission to locate and return to Ethiopia some 416 remaining artifacts taken by British troops as they ransacked the fortress of Emperor Theodore II at Magdala, which was Ethiopia's effective capital 135 years ago.

A member of the organization, Andrew Heavens, says British troops loaded some 30 elephants and 200 mules with treasures that, he says, are now in peoples' attics, backrooms, museums, and in private collections mostly in the United Kingdom.

In the loot was the 300-year-old Book of Psalms, which is written in the Ethiopian language of Ge'ez. Mr. Heavens says the organization purchased the book after spotting a picture of it in a London book catalogue with the stamp Taken from Magdala across its cover.

"It's a hugely significant book because it's hand written, and I understand that makes it particularly holy," he said. "Someone went to the trouble of copying out the entire Book of Psalms and canticles for use in an Ethiopian church service."

Mr. Heavens says the book will be back in Ethiopia in a few weeks. He says, in the past, Ethiopians have rejoiced when they received an item taken from the Magdala raid.

"There was one time when an altar slab was taken back," said Andrew Heavens. "People greeted it at the Addis Ababa airport and lined the streets as it was taken into the center of the city. Someone estimated that a third of the population of the city turned out."

The spokesman for the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture, Ali Solomon, says looting that happened during the Magdala invasion is now outlawed by international heritage regulations adopted by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Therefore, he says, looted items must be returned.

"Those items which are in Britain are part of the initiatives, which are being taken by the Ethiopian government and people," he said. "They belong to Ethiopia, they are part of our culture, and they have a lot of meanings."

He said the Magdala treasures have deep historical, aesthetic, and moral meaning for the people of Ethiopia.