Looted Obelisk Casts a Long Shadow as Ethiopia Awaits Its Return

January 17, 2002

AKSUM, Ethiopia, Jan. 16 - Only a few old-timers, men with long beards and women hunched over low from a lifetime of toiling, remember the day that the Fascists trucked a giant granite obelisk away from Aksum.

Abebe Aemayehu was a boy of 12 in 1937, and he cannot forget the despair of the townspeople as Italian soldiers struggled to move the 200- ton monument. The first truck could not handle the load. A larger one was brought in. Mussolini's men, frustrated by the task, shooed away onlookers.

It was only some children who got a good glimpse as the obelisk, a revered symbol among Ethiopians that is more than 1,000 years old, began its long journey to Rome.

"I'll never forget that day," said Mr. Aemayehu, now a gray and wrinkled man of 76. "It will always be written in my heart."

Centuries ago, Aksum was the center of an ancient Ethiopian empire that extended across the Horn of Africa and beyond. Historians consider the empire among the greatest states of the ancient world, and Aksum was a center of trade, in ivory, animal skins and grain.

Though run-down and destitute today, the town is considered a holy place by Ethiopians because of its leading role in the growth of Coptic Christianity. And some reminders of Aksum's glory days still stand in the center of town - churches, palaces and intricately carved obelisks marking the site of holy burial grounds.

But where one majestic 78-feet- high obelisk once stood near the town center there is now only a deep depression

The Italians were run out of Ethiopia at the end of World War II, but Rome still has the stele, which stands in the Piazza di Porta Capena, in front of a United Nations building that used to house Mussolini's Africa headquarters.

Ethiopians have waged a decades- long fight for the return of the stele, a campaign that at moments seemed on the verge of success. For people like Mr. Aemayehu, already three decades beyond the average life expectancy here, time is running out.

"All of us were furious when it was taken," he said. "The adults were crying and the children like me were just confused. If God blesses me, I will see this stele again."

Italy signed a peace treaty in 1947 that compelled it to return looted items within 18 months. The stele did not budge. In another agreement, signed in 1956, the two countries agreed that the obelisk was "subject to restitution to Ethiopia." That did not bring the stele back to Aksum either. In 1997, in another treaty, Italy agreed to send the obelisk home by year's end. Ethiopia printed up postage stamps to mark the return of the stele but it still remained in Rome.

Sometimes, Italian governments changed, and new administrations have sought to review the issue. Rome continues to maintain that it will return the obelisk one day soon, and the people of Aksum say they have readied the site. But the years keep passing.

"The patience of the Ethiopian people is being tested to the limit and it is wearing thin," Ethiopia's Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture said last week in the government's latest statement on the grievance.

Of course, important cultural artifacts have always been the booty of war. Even the people of Aksum boast about one such looting of their own. By local legend, King Menem of Aksum absconded with the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem, a treasure of the Old Testament. A monk now keeps guard over a small chapel in Aksum where Ethiopians insist that the ark resides.

But when it comes to the obelisk, the people of Aksum maintain that history needs reversing.

In the latest flare-up of the saga, Vittorio Sgarbi, Italy's deputy minister for cultural heritages, announced recently that he would resign if the obelisk were returned.

In remarks that prompted rage in Aksum, and in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, Mr. Sgarbi said last month that "Italy cannot give its consent for a monument well kept and restored to be taken to a war zone, and leave it there with the risk of having it destroyed." He was referring to the border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which for some years has given the Italians pause. Askum lies in Ethiopia's northern highlands, near Eritrea.

Mr. Sgarbi suggested instead that Italy send engineers to Ethiopia to repair some of Aksum's fallen obelisks.

The Ethiopians scoff at the notion that they cannot keep the obelisk safe. True, the biggest obelisk of them all did collapse long ago when it was being built. The obelisk now in Rome had also probably fallen over before the Italian soldiers arrived. But the people of Aksum say the obelisk is a treasure to them and ought to be returned.

Our border disputes are none of their business," said Fisseha Zibelo, the culture minister of Aksum. "We have been guarding the stelae for the last 3,000 years. We know how to take care of them. It's safest if it is right here at home.

If it ever does return, the obelisk would be placed in the burial ground where it used to stand, in between the collapsed giant stele and another that veers slightly off center. All around would be smaller uncarved steles.

Last year, Mr. Zibelo helped organize a petition drive to call for the return of the stele. He even visited Rome to get a glimpse of the obelisk.

I was thinking, it's not supposed to be there," he said. "It doesn't belong to them. I wanted to bring it back with me.

Meanwhile, the people of Aksum wait, with hope.

Negasi Tsehaye, a young merchant, predicts that tourists will follow the obelisk to Ethiopia. "I'm sitting here in my shop waiting, just like my father waited," he said. "We know that if the obelisk comes, customers will come.

Mr. Aemayehu said that Italy's occupation of Ethiopia lasted only five years but that it would not really end until the stele came home.

We will have the biggest celebration that Aksum has ever seen," he said. "This stele makes us proud and if it comes back, we'll forget everything that has happened in the past with the Italians. We'll be proud again.