Ethiopia rallies for the return of an ancient symbol

Ethiopia is ratcheting up its calls for Italy to return the Axum Obelisk, taken by Mussolini's forces in 1937.

Ethiopians in the remote highlands here still remember Mussolini's brutal invasion, especially May 20, 1937, when Italian troops dragged 267 monks out of this village and executed them.

The Italian campaign and subsequent occupation left an estimated 150,000 Ethiopians dead.

Even as the campaign was under way, Italy's Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini ordered that a 1,700-year-old Ethiopian national treasure, the Axum Obelisk, be re-erected in the Piazza di Porta Capena in Rome to commemorate the 15th anniversary of his infamous "March on Rome."

With one terse order, the 75-foot monument, carved from a single piece of granite, was transformed from one of the African continent's proudest symbols of its ancient civilization to a monument to Italian hegemony in the Horn of Africa.

Government officials and academics in Ethiopia say, however, that they want it back. And they are ratcheting up their public campaign for its return.

For several thousand years, monoliths, of which the Axum Obelisk is the largest still standing, were used in northern Ethiopia to honor the authority of local rulers.

Above all, the Axum Obelisk remains a point of great pride for the Ethiopian people. The government's angry new rhetoric reflects the deep wounds that the original theft of the obelisk created here.

"The Addis Ababa government has tried to work to appease the embittered Ethiopian masses while we wait, but is now launching a new public campaign to get Italy to live up to its promises to return it," says Yemane Kidani, a senior Foreign Ministry official.

But four years after an official document promising the return of the obelisk, the current Italian ambassador to Addis Ababa refused to confirm either when or how the Axum Obelisk will be returned.

"I can't be certain when the obelisk will be returned, but these things usually take a few months," said Ambassador Guido La Tella, in a phone interview. The ambassador insisted that "there is still some risk assessment to be done."

A 1997 declaration signed by the Italian and Ethiopian prime ministers promised the obelisk's return by the end of the year.

Mr. Kidani is accusing the Italians of playing a game of diplomatic bluff in order to stave off international condemnation.

"The Italians are still pretending that they intend to return it," adds the Ethiopian official. "The obvious next step for the Italians to show their good faith would be to begin dismantling the obelisk right now in Rome."

Ethiopian and some European scholars say that Italy's reluctance to return the pillar indicates the haughty attitude still held by some former colonial powers toward their former colonies.

"We cannot believe that the Italian people want to retain an obelisk which was erected in Rome to commemorate the 15th anniversary of Mussolini's seizure of power, and which in Rome symbolizes the Fascist regime's former rule in both Italy and Ethiopia," read a letter by a coalition of Ethiopia-based scholars last month to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Andreas Eschette, chief author of the letter and professor of law at Addis Ababa University, says that most Ethiopians consider the reluctance of the Italians to be an insult to their pride. He points out that Italy was first required to return the obelisk in 1947 by a UN-brokered peace deal.

Despite the Italian ambassador's suggestion of continued "risk" to the obelisk - because of Ethiopia's struggle with Eritrea - several Western academics have argued that the air pollution in Rome is the greatest threat to the ancient granite monument.

Now, even Italian academics, including a leading member of the country's National Council of Research, are speaking out with arguments that could well embarrass some politicians in Rome. "What would we Italians say if the Germans, in the last war, had taken from us the relic of St. Gennaro of Naples?" asked Vincenzo Francaviglia, writing earlier this year in The Ethiopian Herald.

Ethiopia's claim to the obelisk is fully supported by UNESCO, the US government's ambassador to Ethiopia, and a group of anti-Fascist Italian Americans in the United States.

Egypt, another African country seeking the return of many of its own cultural heirlooms, has added its voice to the campaign to return the obelisk.

Some observers are warning that the longer Italy waits to return the obelisk, the more likely it is to sour diplomatic relations that remained surprisingly good throughout the second half of the 20th Century.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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