The question of the great Ethiopian obelisk looted by fascist Italy from Aksum in northern Ethiopia, on Mussolini's personal orders in 1937, is still unresolved. The Aksum Obelisk Return Committee in Addis Ababa is therefore appealing to all supporters of international justice and cultural integrity to join in pressing the Italian Government to effect the minument's immediate restoration to Ethiopia.
The Aksum obelisk currently in Rome, which is approximately 25 metres high, is the second largest of the three principal obelisks made by the ancient Akumites shortly before the establishment of Christianity as their state religion in the early fourth century AD.
The obeliskin Rome is considerably finer than the obelisk now standing in Aksum, for it is carved on all four sides, whereas the latter is carved only on the front and two flanks.
The stele in Rome, like those still in Aksum, bears eloquent testimony to the technical accomplishments of the people of ancient Ethiopia, and is a source of pride to Ethiopians, and indeed all Africans, today and for millennia to come.
The obelisk in Rome stands, however, at a busy Roman junction, and is suffering seriously from pollution. The monument in Rome formed an integral part of the Aksum complex of obelisks, which will remain incomplete until this historic monument is finally restored to its original home.
The obelisk now in Rome was looted on the personal orders of the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in 1937. It was erected in Rome on 28 October of that year, to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of Mussolini's "March on Rome", i.e. his suppression of Italian democracy, in 1922.
The looting of the Aksum obelisk was first condemned, in 1937, by Emperor Haile Sellassie, in his famous Address to the Christian Churches of the World, which is reproduced in the second volume of his Autobiography, recently translated into English by Harold Marcus et al. In this address the Emperor listed the seizure of the obelisk as one of the crimes committed against the Ethiopian people by the fascist invader.
Italy's Peace Treaty of 1947, signed with the United Nations after World War II, laid down, in Article 37, that "within eighteen months... Italy shall restore all works of art, religious objects, archives and objects of historical value belonging to Ethiopia or to its nationals and removed from Ethiopia to Italy since October 3, 1935", i.e. the date of the fascist invasion.
This article clearly covered the restitution of the Aksum obelisk, which to this day, however. has not been returned.
The Aksum Obelisk Question as Described by a Former Ethiopian Ambassador to Italy, 1952-5
The question of the obelisk was discussed by Mr Emmanuel Abraham, the Ethiopian Ambassador in Rome, from 1952 to 1955. In his recently published Reminiscences of My Life, he reports that when he spoke to Signor Mendola, the Director-General of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the latter merely "stared at the floor for about one minute but could not bring himself to utter one word".
Another official of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs suggested that the obelisk should be kept in Rome, with a small notice beside it to say that it was a "Gift from the Ethiopian People". This suggestion was of course preposterous. Every one knows, and will always know, that the statue was not a "gift from the Ethiopian people", and, moreover, that a country does not willingly part with one of the finest examples of its cultural heritage, especially as a result of unprovoked invasion.
The obelisk, we would emphasise, was not "given by the Ethoipian people"; it was taken as loot, seized as a result of unprovoked fascist aggression; an aggression which shocked the world, and was formally condemned by fifty members of the League of Nations; aggression carried out with the use of mustard gas, the deliberate bombing of international Red Cross hospitals and ambulances, and the criminal execution of Ethiopian prisoners after surrender; aggression which led to the martyrdom of Abuna Petros, to the Graziani massacre of February 1937, to the shooting of the monks at Dabra Libanos, and other crimes, for none of which did the post- war Italian Government ever trouble to make a single apology.
Ato Emmanuel, frustrated by the Italian Government's attitude to the obelisk question, on one occasion was compelled to tell the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Signor Cardio, that many Italians "failed to appreciate" that "the Ethiopian people did not consider the [Aksum] monument simply as a dressed stone; it was for us a reminder of two thousand years of history", and for that reason could not be bartered away.
The Italian Government put immense pressure on the Ethiopian Government in the early 1950s to allow it to retain the Aksum obelisk in Italy. The Italian Government's action clearly ran contrary to both the spirit and the letter of the Italian Peace Treaty, which had specified, as it will be recalled, that all loot taken from Ethiopia should be returned within eighteen months.
Instead of honouring its obligation under the Peace Treaty - by actually returning the obelisk as required by the treaty - the Italian Government pressurised the Ethiopian Government to sign an entirely new treaty, the Italo-Ethiopian Agreement, of 5 March 1956. This document relegated the question of the obelisk to Appendix C, in which the Italian Government undertook to transport the monument only as far as Naples.
This dishonourable Appendix largely nullified the provisions of the original Peace Treaty. Transportation of the obelisk to Naples, as specified in the Appendix, would have been be no act of restitution, as stipulated in the Peace Treaty.
The Ethiopian Government nevertheless drew comfort from the fact that Italy, in the Appendix, expressly recognised that the obelisk was "subject to restitution to Ethiopia", and that it could "be freely and without charge or hindrance exported from Italy on such vessel as the Imperial Ethiopian Government may choose".
Italy's failure to return the obelisk in accordance with the 1947 Peace Treaty, and the manifest sharp practice embodied the 1956 Appendix, not surprisingly, rankled in the minds of patriotic Ethiopians.
Ethiopians in Italy from time to time expressed their indignation at the obelisk's retention in Rome, and on at least one memorable occasion scrawled on the monument the very relevant question: "Whose Culture is it anyway?"
No less significant, in 1968, Ethiopia's Imperial Parliament passed a strong resolution, which declared that since it was "undesirable to delay, let alone to neglect, the return of the monument of the history and honour of the country... members agree that all steps should be taken for the immediate return of the obelisk... The Parliament agrees that pressure should be applied [on Italy], by refusing permits to persons coming to the country, by suspension of trade, and as a last resort by breaking of diplomatic relations. The Parliament agrees that until the return of the obelisk... Italy should not be given the honour of a visit by His Imperial Majesty".
Since 1991-2 there has been continuous agitation in Ethiopia for the return of the obelisk.
An important petition, launched early in 1992, was signed by some 500 prominent Ethiopians, headed by a former Prime Minister Lij Mikael Imru, a former Foreign Minister Dejazmach Zewde Gabre Sellassie, and numerous leaders of culture, among them Maitre-Artiste Afewerk Tekle, historian Ato Tekle Tsadik Mekuria, poet Assefa Gabre Mariam Tessema, and deans, directors and teachers at Addis Ababa University. This petition took note of the fact that an Italian scholar, Professor Vincenzo Francaviglia, and two associates, were then urging restitution of the obelisk, and declared:
"We recall that Italy has the obligation under Article 37 of the Peace Treaty of 1947 to return to Ethiopia all articles looted after October 3, 1935, the date of the fascist invasion.
"We therefore endorse the request of the three Italian scholars..., and hereby petition for the return of this historic obelisk to its original place".
Thousands of Addis Ababa University students immediately afterwards signed a supportive petition.
Similar petitions were signed by scholars and others in Europe and the United States, as well as by many prominent foreign residents of Addis Ababa, French, British, Indians and others.
Such appeals for the obelisk's return received enthusiastic support from African diplomats in Ethiopia, such as Chief Segun Olusola, Nigeria's Ambassador to Ethiopia, who issued a statement on 11 March, 1992, which read in part:
"Deeply conscious of the importance of Africa's cultural heritage, and of the struggle for its preservation, we extend our support to the people of Ethiopia in their efforts to obtain the return of the ancient Aksum obelisk now in Rome.
"We are aware that the Aksum obelisk was taken from Ethiopia in 1937 on the personal orders of the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
"We are no less aware that Italy in the Peace Treaty of 1947 with the United Nations agreed, in Article 37, to return, at its own expense, all articles looted from Ethiopia after October 3, 1935.
"The obelisk, as we all know, has not yet been returned in accordance with that international agreement: it stands in Rome today, as in Mussolini's day; and we sympathise with the Ethiopian people in their just demand for its return.
"We believe that this beautiful and historic monument is important not only for Ethiopia, but for all Africa. It is a creation in which all Africans can take pride..."
Support for the obelisk's return was also voiced by the internationally renowned Antiquities Department of Egypt.
The Most Recent Ethiopian Demands for Restitution - by the Federal Parliament, and by the People of Aksum.
Ethiopia continues to demand the return of its obelisk. When members of the Aksum Obelisk Return Committee, together with the Ethiopian Patriots' Association, and Ethiopia's sports-stars, Miruts Yifter and Deratu Tullu, demonstrated in front of a massive audience in the Addis Ababa Stadium, the crowd, repeatedly shouted, "Yimeles, Yimeles; Let it Return!, Let it Return!" This was televised throughout the country.
Innumerable messages of support for the obelisk's return have also been made by prominent scholars of Ethiopia and of Italy (to cite but one example of each, Professor Sven Rubenson and Professor Denis Mack Smith).
A resolution for the obelisk's restitution was passed unanimously by the Ethiopian Federal Parliament, on 8 February of this year, and a similar resolution was carried soon afterwards, also unanimously, by the Assembly of Tigray, the region in which Aksum is situated.
A letter was despatched from the Ethiopian Patriarch, Abuna Pawlos V, to the Pope of Rome, appealing for the latter's good offices on the obelisk restitution issue.
In June of this year a petition for the return of the obelisk was signed by 13,000 inhabitants of Aksum - the largest petition ever signed in Ethiopian history.
More recently, on 12 November, the Secretary-General of the Organisation of African Unity, Dr Salem Ahmed Salem, officially announced his support for the monument's speedy restoration.
The question of the Aksum obelisk's return is not one affecting only Ethiopia and Italy: it is a matter of international justice, with which all lovers of justice should be concerned.
The Italian Peace Treaty of 1947 with the United Nations, was not signed only with Ethiopia; it was signed with all the United Nations as a whole. The Aksum Obelisk Return Committee therefore appeals for the moral support not only to Ethiopians interested in preserving, and winning back, their cultural heritage, and Italians desirous of restoring their country's good name, but also to the international community as a whole.
The Aksum Obelisk Return Committee feels that, since there have been so many Ethiopian demands to no avail, the time has come to appeal to all lovers of imternational justice to exert their pressure on the Italian Government to have the obelisk speedily returned in accordance with the Treaty's Article 37. Only in that way will justice in relation to the obelisk at long last be done.
As indicated above the people and successive governments of Ethiopia have repeatedly requested the return of their country's artefacts, which were illegaly taken out of the land.
The Ethiopian Federal Republic Government is at present discussing ways and means of obtaining the return of the Axum obelisk. Such negotiations have taken place several times in the past, but without success.
Italian Governments over the years made many promises, but the obelisk still stands in Rome. It is hoped that the present discussions will bear fruit. From our past experience, however, we feel that additional support is necessary so that, this time, the return of the obelisk will become a reality.
It is with this in mind that we appeal, to all persons of good will to despatch letters and petitions to the Italian Government, to Italian diplomatic missions abroad, and to persons of influence throughout the world, urging the speedy return of the Aksum obelisk to its rightful owners, the people of Ethiopia.
Please send copies of any such messages to me (at POB 1896, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, or by E-mail to R.Pankhurst@padis.gn.apc.org) so that I can give them the publicity required.
With many thanks for your support,
Richard Pankhurst (Professor), Aksum Obelisk Return Committee