Give back looted treasures, Ethiopia tells the world

After decades of political wrangling, Italy agreed to return the Rome Obelisk to its home. Now Addis Ababa wants Britain to send back its ancient relics, including some held by the Queen, writes Meera Selva
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The Independent Online

Wander around Axum, a sleepy town in northern Ethiopia, and it is impossible to ignore the giant pit that has been dug right in the centre of town. It is to be filled with the Rome Obelisk, a 1,700-year-old carved granite stone that was hauled away by the Italians in 1937 during Mussolini's brutal occupation of the country.

Wander around Axum, a sleepy town in northern Ethiopia, and it is impossible to ignore the giant pit that has been dug right in the centre of town. It is to be filled with the Rome Obelisk, a 1,700-year-old carved granite stone that was hauled away by the Italians in 1937 during Mussolini's brutal occupation of the country.

Sipping macchiato made from an imported Italian coffee machine, 24-year-old Akul explains just why the stone should be returned. "It is our history and we are proud of it. They [the Italians] cannot be proud of their history in this country so they have no right to keep it."

Akul and others like him have found an unexpected champion in their fight to have their antiques returned.

Professor Richard Pankhurst, son of Sylvia, grandson of Emmeline and nephew of Christabel, the trio of suffragettes who won for women the right to vote in the UK, has taken up the Ethiopian cause.

Sitting in the study of his home in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, surrounded by grandchildren, he talks of how important it is that Europe returns the treasures it stole from the African country. "The youth of this country deserve to see the treasures produced by their ancestors," he said. "It is very important for them to feel a sense of pride in their country, and to know that they are from a civilisation that produced great things."

Professor Pankhurst, 77, and his family are almost Ethiopian treasure in themselves. His mother's tomb was given pride of place at the front of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Adaba. She was one of the few Westerners to notice and oppose Italy's occupation of Ethiopia. People in Addis still remember how she fought for Ethiopian independence, and eventually moved to the country to edit a newspaper. In many ways, the country suited her perfectly.

Except for the Italian invasion, which lasted from 1935 to 1941, the country had never been colonised, and the status of women in Ethiopia was in many ways better than it was in England. Women could own property and keep their own name after marriage long before they were given the same rights in England.

After she died, in Ethiopia, in 1960, Professor Pankhurst took up her mantle. In 1962, he set up an Institute for Ethiopian studies in the grounds of Addis Adaba University. He left the country in 1976, just after the socialist dictatorship, known as the Derg, took power, but later returned and settled in Addis. He is currently research professor at the institute.

His son, Alula, named after an Ethiopian patriot, teaches social anthropology at the university, and his daughter, Helen, who kept the Pankhurst name after she married, has brought her children to Ethiopia for a year to teach them Amharic, the country's main language. Every taxi driver in the capital knows the way to the Pankhurst house and every tour guide around the country claims to be Professor Pankhurst's closest friend.

"He is a very good man - he always talks well about Ethiopia abroad, which is why foreigners come to see us," said Menelik as he unlocked the door to King Ezana's stela, a fourth-century stone in Axum that has inscriptions in the ancient languages of Sabaean, Ge'ez and Greek.

"Without him, everyone thinks we are people of only famine and war."

Ethiopia is one of the growing number of countries that are demanding the return of antiques that were taken away by Western colonial powers.

Like the Elgin Marbles, the Rome Obelisk has become a symbol of the wrongs inflicted on a developing country by a First World power.

Ethiopia has struggled to build up a tourism industry in the wake of Live Aid and other famine appeals, which destroyed its image abroad, and sees the return of its antiquities as a crucial part of an economic and political recovery.

"We need all the help we can get to rebuild tourism," Mulugetu Assefe, head of the Lalibela branch of National Tour Operators, said. "Our hotels and transport are not always reliable, but if we get these treasures back, we believe the stream of tourists that will come will help us improve standards." After decades of political wrangling, Italy agreed last year to return the Rome obelisk to Ethiopia, but so far, no one has found a way to get the 100 ton structure back to its original site in northern Ethiopia. It was taken away by sea at the port of Massawa but that port is now part of Eritrea, which refuses to help Ethiopia until a border dispute between the two countries is resolved.

Despite the deadlock over the obelisk, Professor Pankhurst is determined to secure the return of the Maqdala Treasures, a collection of precious manuscripts and artefacts that was stolen by the British, who invaded the mountain city of Maqdala in 1868. The Ethiopian ruler Emperor Tewodros committed suicide after the defeat and the British loaded up 15 elephants and 200 mules with the looted goods and carried them home, where they were auctioned off to raise money for British troops.

The collection, believed to be worth $3bn (£1.7bn), is scattered around various houses and institutions including the British Library, the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, and the Cambridge University Library.

Tourists and rogue antique dealers still try to smuggle artefacts out of the country and the World Bank now plans to set up a catalogue of all remaining artefacts in Ethiopia, to stop them also being taken out of the country illegally.

Some of the looted art has made its way back in dribs and drabs. Reverend John Luckie discovered a tabot, a wooden replica of the Arc of the Covenant - used by Israelites to carry the Ten Commandments to the Promised Land - that is found in all Ethiopian Orthodox churches, in a battered leather box in an Edinburgh church, and returned it to Ethiopia in 2002. More than a thousand Ethiopians lined the route from Addis Ababa's airport to the university to welcome it home.

The most recent return was in May, when a Danish professor, Fiona Wilson, returned a buffalo skin and silver shield belonging to Emperor Tewodro, which had hung in her parents' dining room during her childhood. Her grandfather had bought the shield from a dealer in 1890, and her family had assumed it was a Scottish antique. The shield has now become the single most visited item in Ethiopia.

Despite these small victories, Ethiopian academics want artefacts to be returned in a systematic way so they can build up a comprehensive collection, that they then promise will be available to academics around the world.

This week, the Ethiopian parliament will make a formal request to the British Government to return the Maqdala treasures. "Individuals have returned antiques promptly but I just wish the Queen could be as generous in returning the six precious manuscripts she holds at Windsor Castle," said the professor. "It is part of her private collection and there is nothing to stop her returning them."

The main obstacle faced by Professor Pankhurst is a belief that Ethiopia will not be able to care for the antiques properly. Indeed attitudes towards precious artefacts can seem somewhat cavalier in Ethiopia.

A manuscript made of goat skin that dates from the 16th century is left open on an office chair inside one of Lalibela's 900-year-old rock churches and others are left out in the sunlight for tourists to photograph. And centuries-old bronze artefacts are casually dragged out by priests from under wooden benches to be photographed by visitors. In Axum, local women collect murky green water to wash their clothes from a square pool which is believed to be baths used by the Queen of Sheba. Professor Pankhurst accepts this is a problem. "We will have to hold workshops for priests, teaching them how to store and handle ancient manuscripts properly," he admits. "But I would like to point out that the obelisks that remain in Axum are still intact, while the one in Rome has had its surface eroded by Roman pollution. It's simply not true that things will be better cared for in the West. Remember the fire at Windsor Castle? It could very well have destroyed our manuscripts."

He adds that the antiques that remained in Ethiopia survived all the country's political turmoils, including the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, and the war against Eritrea in 1998. "Everyone in Ethiopia recognises the value of the possessions we have. Even during the 1974 revolution, army generals took personal responsibility for the safety of even the smallest item of any historic significance."

The British Library tried last month to offer a compromise solution. It refused to return the 10 tabots it holds, but offered to give access to Ethiopian priests in London who wanted to view them. It adds that it wants to preserve its collections "for the benefit of international scholarship and the enjoyment of the public". Historians argue that the tabots are religious objects that are meaningless outside a church. Professor Andreas Eshete, president of Addis Ababa University, said: "The tabots give a church its sanctity, and they only have a value if they are accompanied by a congregation and prayers. And if scholars are really interested in Ethiopian history, they surely cannot object to travelling to Ethiopia to see manuscripts in the country where they belong."

In September, Professor Pankhurst organised protests outside the Italian embassy in London. Afromet, the organisation he founded to lobby for the return of the Maqdala treasures, will target Britain's Commission on Africa, which meets in Addis Ababa under the chairmanship of Tony Blair on Thursday and Friday. It wants to take advantage of the fact that the commission has called for 'the preservation of African culture and heritage". Other African countries, including Ghana, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, want their treasures back.

"Tony Blair tells us he wants us to maintain our culture," said Professor Eshete. "Well perhaps the best way to encourage us is to give us back all our treasures. Ethiopia's heritage is Africa's heritage."

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