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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
news
Sport
Chelsea midfielder Cesc Fabregas
footballChelsea vs West Ham live kicks off coverage of all 10 of Boxing Day matches
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all