Why a majestic symbol of Africa lies in pieces in a Rome warehouse

Silvio Berlusconi said he would honour an Italian pledge to return the Obelisk of Axum, looted from Ethiopia by the fascists. Now, like his government, the project is in limbo. Peter Popham reports
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The Independent Online

It seemed a good idea at the time. Two years ago, the Berlusconi government, still young and raring to go, armed with the biggest post-war majority and fired up with the whizz-bang, cut-the-crap, entrepreneurial spirit of the Prime Minister, pledged to undo the shame of generations.

It seemed a good idea at the time. Two years ago, the Berlusconi government, still young and raring to go, armed with the biggest post-war majority and fired up with the whizz-bang, cut-the-crap, entrepreneurial spirit of the Prime Minister, pledged to undo the shame of generations.

It agreed to honour a promise made more than 50 years before and return Ethiopia's most treasured ancient monument, the Obelisk of Axum, a symbol of the Ethiopian nation, to its rightful owners.

Two years on, the enormous (24 metres) granite object is gone from its piazza near the Circus Maximus in central Rome. It has been cut up into three pieces, as it was when it arrived in Italy in 1937. But it is still no closer to arriving back in the ancient city of Axum. Instead, it resides in a warehouse in Rome: an unseen monument to the very great difficulty, sometimes, of doing the right thing.

One of the biggest pieces of granite ever quarried and carved as a single piece in the ancient world, the Obelisk of Axum, with others, was a majestic though mysterious presence in Ethiopia's ancient city of Axum for more than 2,000 years. Nobody knows what it was for, or what the window and door-like carvings the length of the column might mean. But Ethiopians held it dear.

Then in 1935 Italian troops poured into Addis Ababa, and two years later Benito Mussolini lugged it off to Rome. A fast-track empire builder, Mussolini was in no doubt that the new Roman Empire was in need of obelisks. The old one, after all, had them in spades, most if not all looted from Egypt. In ancient Rome they dominated the Circus Maximus, the chariot-racing circuit near the Colosseum. Today they punctuate many of the city's most beautiful piazzas: the biggest of them all, the obelisk of King Tutsmosis, 32.16 metres high, in Piazza San Giovanni, others in Piazza del Popolo, at the top of the Spanish Steps and (mounted on a carved elephant) in Piazza della Minerva. Mysterious, exotic presences, they still carry a whiff of far-flung possessions.

So Il Duce obtained an obelisk all his own, breaking it in three pieces (the largest and heaviest weighing 77 tons), shipping it to Rome and setting it up outside his new Ministry of Italian Africa, as a symbol of dominance.

With the fall of Mussolini, however, and the roll-back of the small Italian empire, the obelisk was suddenly an embarrassment. And in 1947 the two countries signed a peace treaty, stating in Article 37 that "within 18 months ... Italy shall restore all works of art, religious objects ... and objects of historical value". Fine words: but more than 50 years later, the parsnips remained unbuttered.

The Ministry of Italian Africa had transmogrified into the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation, but the obelisk remained outside its gates.

Then on Monday 27 May 2002 lightning struck it during a violent thunderstorm, sending several bits crashing to the ground. This indication of possible divine exasperation galvanised the negotiations: within months the Berlusconi government had agreed to send the obelisk home, all expenses paid.

The challenge was a complex one, because of its immense size, weight and age, but by last November a plan had been finalised: to cut the monster into three pieces again, along the existing break lines.

Over many hours on 25 November, under threatening skies, a small crowd composed mostly of Ethiopians watched the delicate work proceed. The Ethiopians' mood was gay. The wait had been so long, the false dawns frequent - in 1998 the Ethiopian government had even issued special postage stamps to welcome the obelisk home.

"It's like Christmas," said Gidei, an Ethiopian woman living in Rome. "Everyone's happy. In your life you travel from place to place, but finally you have to go back to your own soil. And now the obelisk is going home."

It has at least been safely removed from Piazza di Porta Capena. But today its joyful homecoming looks as remote as ever. The obelisk has now been in storage in Rome for eight months.

"I'm shocked and confused," the Ethiopian ambassador, Mengistu Hulluka, said this week. The Italian government, he said, had given him three different reasons for the delay. "At the beginning we believed the obelisk would leave right after it was dismantled, in an American airplane. Then they told us that the planes of that type" - a Galaxy or a Russian Antonov are said to be the only ones big enough for the job - "were all required in Iraq for the foreseeable future".

The other two reasons for the hold-up were lack of funds - in addition to the €1.5m (£1m) already spent - to complete the task; and "the absence of a precise project for transportation". The obelisk cannot be brought to Ethiopia by ship, as the only convenient port is now part of Eritrea, and not considered safe. And while the Ethiopian government has already constructed an airstrip at Axum specifically for the obelisk's return, it now transpires that it is not long enough. "It's two and a half kilometres long," says Mr Hulluka. "It needs to be extended by another kilometre."

The whole project is in a limbo very similar to the stagnation and uncertainty besetting the Berlusconi government.

"I've been told by the Foreign Ministry," says Mr Hulluka bleakly, "that there is now no certain date for the obelisk's return."