ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA — ETHIOPIA'S ancient city of Axum, legend has it, was the site of the queen of Sheba's Biblical realm and the final resting palace of the Ark of the Covenant. Huge granite obelisks are what remain of its past glory, a source of deep national pride.
But something is missing - one of the stelae was looted in 1937 and taken to Rome on the orders of the then-ruling Italian fascists under Benito Mussolini. Mussolini controlled Ethiopia until after World War II. Since then, Ethiopia has been trying to get it back and is angry over foot-dragging by the current Italian government.
"Its return is becoming more of a priority for Ethiopia. It's important to conclude a certain era," says an Ethiopian Foreign Ministry official. "The Italians invaded this country and took away what was ours. Let's close the chapter."
In the 1947 peace treaty with the United Nations, Italy promised to return within 18 months art and historical loot taken from Ethiopia after its invasion in October 1935. Half a century later, the promises still have not been met.
The 80-foot-high carved monument in Rome is the second-largest of three giant stelae built in Axum, which lies in the shadow of the Adwa Mountains 623 miles north of the capital.
The biggest, when erect, was one of the world's largest monoliths, measuring more than 108 feet and weighing about 500 tons. It fell and now lies in broken pieces on the ground. A smaller obelisk, 75 feet tall, still stands there.
The three monuments are decorated with representations of doors, windows, and door handles in the style of Axum palaces, erected just before the coming of Christ by a mysterious but powerful Ethiopian ruler.
Restitution of the looted obelisk is one of the few issues that have united diverse Ethiopian governments over the past 60 years from Emperor Haile Selassie I to the Marxist dictator Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile-Mariam, who toppled the emperor, and the current government.
Last February, the Ethiopian parliament voted unanimously for the artifact's immediate return.
Ethiopian nationalism is on the rise, especially with the centenary in March of the 1896 battle of Adwa. There, Emperor Menelik II defeated the Italians in the greatest modern victory of an African army over a European one.
The Italian government says it still plans to give back the obelisk, but won't say when.
"Our position is to give it back soon. But a technical problem must be studied first," says Danesi Visconti, at Italy's embassy in Addis.
"Inside the obelisk is an iron [rod] which keeps it standing. So they must figure out how to remove it or else it will break. The Ethiopian government must set up a technical committee to study this, "he says.
Bickering over the return
"There appears to be goodwill to return it," says the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry official. "But they apparently don't want to commit themselves on when and how, maybe because of the transport problems."
"That doesn't convince me. It wasn't so easy to transport it in the 1930s, yet they did."
The campaign is intensifying by the Axum Obelisk Return Committee formed by leading Ethiopian intellectuals and academics. They are pushing for the Organization of African Unity to take a stand. So far Nigeria and Egypt's Antiquities Department have rallied to support Ethiopia.
Nearly every day in the last month the local press has published demands that the obelisk be returned. Some angry letters have also insisted that Italy return a small pre-World War II airplane which belonged to Ethiopia and now sits in a museum north of Rome.
"In terms of restitution, Ethiopia has had a raw deal," says Richard Pankhurst, a British historian based in Ethiopia who belongs to the committee. "We cannot believe that democratic Italians can draw any pleasure from the continued presence in their capital of a stolen obelisk placed there to commemorate the destruction of their liberty by the former dictator," he adds.
The obelisk's rightful place, Mr. Pankhurst says, is among the the archaeological treasures of Axum. These include historical sites linked to queen of Sheba in the 10th century BC.
Local residents believe the Ark of the Covenant was brought to Axum some 3,000 year ago by Menelik, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Menelik founded Ethiopia's dynasty whose rule ended with Haile Selassie 20 years ago.
Whether or not this is true (visitors cannot enter the sanctuary to see the alleged ark), historians have verified that some high civilization was established there by the 1st century AD by people who came from southern Arabia.