Hidden in a British Museum basement: the lost Ark looted by colonial raiders

On a shelf in a locked basement room underneath the British Museum, are kept 11 wooden tablets; they are covered in purple velvet. And no one among the museum's staff - including Neil MacGregor, the director - is permitted to enter the room.

On a shelf in a locked basement room underneath the British Museum, are kept 11 wooden tablets; they are covered in purple velvet. And no one among the museum's staff - including Neil MacGregor, the director - is permitted to enter the room.

The tablets - or tabots - are sacred objects in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the most important of the 500 or so priceless Magdala treasures, looted by Britain from Ethiopia in 1868 and now held in this country. For almost two decades, the only people allowed access have been Ethiopian church clergy; it is considered sacrilegious for anyone else to see them.

Amid growing calls for the return of the treasures, the British Museum has moved them from an anonymous storage site to its Bloomsbury main building and announced that it is considering loaning them to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in London on what would be a permanent basis. They are regarded as representing the original Ark of the Covenant, which housed the Ten Commandments and the Orthodox Church has been lobbying for their return - or at least easy access to them - for more than 50 years.

Handing them over - even on loan - would be considered a major breakthrough and increase pressure for the remainder to be returned.

The BM and the two other institutions with large Magdala collections, the Victoria & Albert Museum and the British Library, are reassessing their treasures and holding informal talks, although legally they cannot be simply be handed back. But as a sign of the seriousness with which the museum is taking the case for restitution, Mr MacGregor recently visited Addis Ababa to hear the arguments. The case has parallels to the Elgin Marbles, the return of which the Greek government has been demanding for decades.

A spokeswoman for the British Museum said: "We have had some initial discussions over their future. The idea of their loan to the church is one suggestion that we hope we can move further forward.'' A loan, renewable every five years, circumvents the legal problems of returning artefacts, which has only previously happened with Nazi-era items. The museum also said that the tabots would have to remain in London since there is nowhere in Ethiopia with the required environmental and security standards.

The acquisition of the Magdala treasures was a murky episode in the museum's history. In 1867, a British force was sent to Ethiopia to free hostages taken by Emperor Tewodros; after defeat at the Battle of Magdala, he committed suicide. Extensive looting of the imperial treasures ensued and Richard Holmes, a museum curator sent specifically to locate items, obtained 80 objects taken by British soldiers; others found their way to the museum through bequests.

As well as the tabots, the haul included ceremonial crosses, chalices, processional umbrella tops, textiles and jewellery.

The tabots have been held for many years at a warehouse in east London, but after Mr Macgregor's visit they were moved to the museum. The museum said this was partially a practical necessity but said it was also designed to assure the Ethiopians of the respect in which they were held. The Art Newspaper has disclosed that, in a sign of the aura surrounding them, they were suitably covered for the move and carried by a member of the Ethiopian church. Alone inside the room, the priest placed the cloth-wrapped tabots on a shelf and covered them with purple velvet, before locking the door.

The V&A holds more than 50 items, including a gold crown, a chalice, a shield, a silver cross and the dress worn by the emperor's widow, Queen Terunesh.

The British Library holds 350 manuscripts from Magdala. Other artefacts are held in the Royal Collection, including manuscripts housed in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle and by the universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge, many remain in private hands.

During Tony Blair's recent visit to Addis Ababa, members of the Association for the Return of the Magdala Ethiopian Treasures, pressed a petition into the hands of his aides. Its founder, Professor Richard Pankhurst, son of the suffragette campaigner Sylvia Pankhurst, said: "The quantity of books and manuscripts taken amounted to the equivalent of both Ethiopia's national library and national archives."

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