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Restoring a Piece of Ethiopian History

In a month or two, work will begin to restore a piece of Ethiopian history. Nearly 70 years after the Axum Obelisk was looted by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and taken to Rome, a major project begins to return it to its past glory.

In northern Ethiopia, in Tigray, lies the ancient city of Axum. Founded by the Axumites between 100 and 200 BC, it has been called the cradle of Ethiopian civilization and a gateway to Asia.

The obelisk, one of many erected at the site, had stood for about 1700 years before Mussolini’s forces cut it down and shipped it to the Italian capital. It was re-located across from an Italian ministry building, which is now the headquarters of the UN Food & Agriculture Organization.

Despite a promise by Italy in a 1947 peace treaty to return the monument, that didn’t actually happen until 2005. And it had to be cut into three pieces before finally being flown back to Ethiopia.

Lending its logistical and technical support to the obelisk project is UNESCO, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Francesco Bandarin is the director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Center in Paris.

"This is an extremely difficult project. The enormous, humongous complexity of this project. It seems easy to take an obelisk and put it back. In fact, people did it in the past very many times in Egypt and Axum and so on. But unfortunately, it’s not so easy," he says.

The obelisk weighs a hefty 160 tons. Nevertheless, Bandarin says it’s quite fragile.

"First of all, the monument that we have now is not the same monument that was there 17 centuries ago. It is a very delicate structure that has been damaged throughout the past because it collapsed centuries ago. Then it was brought to Rome, was damaged during transportation. It was even shelled during World War Two. So, it’s a very complicated history, this poor obelisk," he says.

The UNESCO official says as a result, he’s taking what he calls a “zero risk approach” to raising the monument. The first thing that must be done is to create a very solid foundation to support its massive weight. Also, nearby structures must be protected.

"We have to avoid any contact with the surrounding archeology. The obelisk was essentially a royal tomb. So all around this obelisk is full of tombs of royal families. So we cannot touch these structures," he says.

A 33-meter-high tower will be built over the site that will allow workers to eventually slide the blocks onto one another. However, the material needed to build the tower cannot be found in Ethiopia.

He says, "The specialized steel pipes and the crane bridges and the steel columns that are needed for that. So, the logistics of bringing these kind of things from Europe or from the Gulf into Djibouti, which is 2,000 kilometers from Axum, and then up the hills, this is a 6,000 feet altitude. So it’s a huge and very complex operation."

Even before that’s done, the head of the World Heritage Center says a nearby obelisk, which is leaning, must be restored. If all goes according to plan, the Axum Obelisk could be standing in its original location again early next year.