Arts & Artefacts: Raiders of the lost ark

It started as a tiff with Queen Victoria, it ended with the looting of Ethiopia's holiest treasures. By Adrian Cooper
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The year is 1862. The Ethiopian Emperor Negusa Nagast Theodore wants to set diplomatic links with Queen Victoria in stone: to build a bridge between Europe and Africa, forming a mighty Christian kingdom and lighting a beacon to ward off any ideas Islam may have for world domination. The Emperor begins to woo, sending letter after letter to the Queen. She does not respond. He keeps writing but he hears nothing from her. He becomes angry: either the Queen isn't interested, or he is not being taken seriously as a spiritual and political leader. And as an alleged blood descendant of King Solomon, and divine ruler of perhaps the oldest existing Christian culture, Theodore does not, unsurprisingly, appreciate rejection.

So he makes a move that Victoria cannot ignore: he imprisons the British consul in Ethiopia. He is not ignored. In 1868, the "Abyssinian Expedition", commanded by General Napier, is dispatched by the House of Commons to resolve the "situation".

British troops arrive on East African soil armed with rifles and cannons; they employ locals as guides and elephants to carry their freight. A vicious battle ensues in the rift valley highlands of Magdala in central Ethiopia. Spears and shields are no defence against the British weaponry. A bloodbath follows, culminating in the Emperor's suicide on 13 April 1868.

Soon, according to HM Stanley, writing for the New York Times, thousands of ancient Biblical manuscripts and the largest amount of gold bullion and jewellery ever collected by an Ethiopian emperor cover "the whole surface of the rock citadel, the slopes of the hill, and of the entire road to the British camp two mile off". Two days late,r the loot is auctioned off to raise prize money for the troops. Enter the Royal Librarian, Sir Richard Holmes, who outbids the gathering of civilians and officers, all eager for souvenirs in this surreal scene on an East African plain. With ample funds supplied by the British Museum, Holmes secures and takes back home the booty.

Four years later, in 1872, the extent of the looting and the intrinsic importance of the icons to Ethiopia moves the British Prime Minister, William Gladstone, to say Britain was "never at war with the people or churches of Abyssinia", and, "deeply regretting" their removal, he suggests the artefacts be returned.

One hundred and thirty years after the Battle of Magdala, two questions remain unanswered: exactly what heritage did Ethiopia lose, and where has all of it gone? We do know that contained in crates, aboard British steamer ships, were ancient Ethiopian Bibles, written in the sacred language of Ge'ez, with theological treatises and laws, Biblical commentaries depicting the lives of saints, documents of civil law, history, medicine and chronology, even lists of land sales, marriages, property, court decisions, and tax records: texts that are the very foundation of Ethiopian Christianity and culture. The gold and jewellery included a crown and chalice dug from a grave belonging to Abuna, head of the Ethiopian church.

These treasures are scattered across Europe and the US, the result of diplomatic gifts and private sales. But no one knows exactly where they have gone: the Victoria & Albert Museum holds Abuna's crown and chalice, and there are some 600 manuscripts scattered around Britain, including those held in the British Museum and the Royal Library at Windsor Castle; there may be several thousand more in France, Germany, Italy and the US. Last month, writer Martin Bailey revealed that he had discovered a lost painting from Magdala, the Kwer'ata Re'esu, The Striking of the Head, wrapped in newspaper in a Portuguese bank vault. The 16th-century picture of Christ, thought to have been painted by a Flemish or Portuguese artist, is presumed to have been taken by Portuguese emissaries or Jesuits to Ethiopia, where it came to be regarded as sacred and was carried into battle as a talisman. As its discovery suggests, the sighting of artefacts is erratic and only scratches the surface of what may be hidden in the archives of libraries, museums and private collections.

Now, knowing where at least some of their culture lies, Ethiopians would like it back. Their requests are being supported by a group of people working in Britain for whom the events at Magdala have become something of an obsession.

My first introduction to the story of Magdala came from a jazz musician based in Brighton, Gary Cove. For the past two years, his music has been inspired by the history of Ethiopia and the fate of the artefacts. The influence of reggae and jazz on British popular music and culture is immense, and for Cove, this binds black and white cultures, Africa and Europe, Ethiopia and Britain. This tie makes the theft of sacred art from Magdala an affront for Cove, it shakes the foundations of what we believe to be true about our own past: "Our dreams are squashed when we see the injustice and realise our past is not as great as we were once taught."

Through Cove I met Seymour McLean, patron of the Magdala Campaign. The Ethiopian famine of the 1980s got him interested in Rastafarianism, the movement which regards the former Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia as a Messiah. For over a decade McLean has researched Magdala, and at the campaign's headquarters in London, he has compiled extensive research evidence that locates some of the artefacts and provide ammunition for the political struggle to return the treasures.

"The Battle of Magdala is cultural robbery," he says. "The Royal Chronicles and Sacred Bibles of Ethiopia are worth more than we can possibly imagine." On a recent trip to Addis Ababa, he advised the Archbishops to begin an inventory of what was taken. At home, his attempts at dialogue have met with mixed responses: Buckingham Palace referred to "a point of principle, and problem shared"; the Department for Culture, Media and Sport told him, "There are no plans at present to return to Ethiopia the objects obtained in 1868"; Tony Blair was "in favour of multi-lateral agreements"; and the Foreign Office replied that "we cannot consider giving them back unless they are officially requested".

Recently, I told the story of Magdala to a friend and writer, Sonja Henrici. Since then, she has begun an academic study, exploring why the Abyssinian Expedition became the era's most expensive defence of British honour. She is also questioning the Victorian version of what happened: was the invasion simply to free the imprisoned diplomats, or does the looting of Biblical texts indicate a motive to undermine Ethiopia as a Christian power?

Through these individuals and groups, a largely forgotten episode in history is now being reinvestigated. This could well be the start of a fresh chapter in the story of Magdala

The storming of Magdala exactly 130 years ago (below) led to the pillaging of one of the greatest existing Christian civilisations and the scattering of its treasures across the globe. Left: the Kwer'ata Re'esu (The Striking of the Head), discovered last month in a Portuguese bank vault, was probably taken to Ethiopia by Portuguese emissaries or Jesuits, where it came to be seen as a sacred talisman. Below left: the crown dug from a grave belonging to Abuna, head of the Ethiopian church, now at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Facing page: Homilies and Miracles of St Michael, an illuminated Ethiopian manuscript on vellum written in the Ge'ez language