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A Piece Of Ethiopian History Returns Home

A piece of history returned home to Axum, Ethiopia, Tuesday.

Nearly 60 years after Italian dictator Benito Mussolini looted the Axum obelisk and brought it to Italy, part of the relic has arrived in Ethiopia by cargo plane. Two other sections of the 24-meter tall obelisk are expected in Axum within the next ten days.

Professor Richard Pankhurst is with the Institute of Ethiopian studies at Addis Ababa University. He spoke to English to Africa reporter Joe De Capua about the significance of the 1700-year-old relic to Ethiopia.

He says, “The first and most important aspect is this is an artifact going back to the beginnings of Ethiopian history and culture. It therefore has a central role in Ethiopia’s identity. At the same time, the fact that the Italian government for so long failed to honor its obligations in accordance with the peace treaty with the United Nations of 1947 that in a way Ethiopia was constantly being snubbed and ignored. And this return of the obelisk shows that the new Italian government has finer perspectives than some of its predecessors.”

Were the reasons for the delay in returning the obelisk strictly political? Professor Pankhurst says, “I think it really brings us to the question of Italy’s image of Ethiopia. You know, in Germany and Japan after the Second World War you had the trial of criminals, war criminals, with the result that the German and Japanese public had some idea of what seizin (possession of land or chattel) meant. In the case of Italy no war crimes took place. Not a single Italian criminal was accused, even though many war crimes took place. I think because of that the Italian public really was not sensitized to the fact that the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 was not a mission of civilization as Mussolini tried to present it. And for that reason I think support for the restitution of the obelisk, even though there was a treaty obligation, was not forthcoming.”

The obelisk is being returned in three separate pieces. Professor Pankhurst says in ancient times, the obelisk fell and broke into three pieces. However, during its display in Rome, the sections were reconnected. The central section is the first to be returned to Axum. He calls the loss of the obelisk “a wound on the Ethiopian psyche for so long.”

He says, “Axum was the capital of the ancient Axumite Empire, the first major state to emerge in this part of the world. And with the coming of Christianity, which came just about the time the obelisk was put up…it became the center of Ethiopian Christendom.”