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Expert Says Re-Erecting Ethiopian Obelisk Could Cause Problems

The third and final piece of the Axum obelisk is off loaded in Axum
A University of Cambridge expert says the re-erection of an obelisk that Italy returned to Ethiopia could damage ancient tombs beneath and near the site.

Professor of African Archaeology David Phillipson tells VOA unexplored tombs under the obelisk site in Axum could be damaged and might never be excavated if the structure, which recently arrived in three pieces from Italy, is set up.

"The sheer weight of not only the obelisk itself, which weighs about 160-170 tons, but also any cranes or lifting equipment that might be involved," he said. "Presumably a large amount of cement or concrete would be needed to hold it in place. That, of course, would effectively preclude the underlying tombs ever being investigated archaeologically."

Mr. Phillipson says the recently returned obelisk is one of several in Axum. He says they were erected in the late third or early fourth century AD to mark the site of tombs that contain large, elaborate underground architecture, one site of which he saw during his expedition last decade.

Mr. Phillipson says the obelisk had been laying in pieces on the ground when fascist Italian troops took it in 1937. It was re-assembled in Italy, then disassembled into three pieces to transport it back to Ethiopia this month.

Axum, says Mr. Phillipson, is a very important area culturally and archaeologically that is little explored. He says there are what he calls "two obvious alternatives" to re-erecting the obelisk on the original site.

"One is to re-erect it somewhere else where it would not be in danger of causing subsidence or destroying or disturbing other archaeological features, and the other would be to put it back on the ground lying in pieces as it was when the Italians took it away," he said.

The last piece of the obelisk arrived Monday in Ethiopia. Thousands of Ethiopians celebrated the return of the monument, which Prime Minister Meles Zenawi called a "symbol of identity."

An Ethiopian government told VOA the obelisk's return signals what he called a "new chapter" in Ethiopian-Italian relations.

The obelisk's return has been the subject of a feud between Ethiopia and Italy for more than 50 years. Agreements to return the obelisk had been made, and not honored, several times.