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The Obelisk Return That Wasn't


Mike ThomsonMike Thomson
It was supposed to be a rare example of an ancient artefact making its way home after decades in Europe. But what happened to the Axum Obelisk? Mike Thomson investigates.

Mike Thomson investigates why, several months on, the Axum Obelisk remains under wraps at an Italian airport (15/09/04).
Protesters in Washington D.C.

Protesters in Washington D.C. make their concerns about the delays in returning the obelisk clear (photo: courtesy of the campaigners).

Read or listen to Mike's report on what was thought to be the imminent return of the obelisk from early this year

More information about Ethiopia

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Professor Richard Pankhurst

Professor Richard Pankhurst, son of the famous suffragette Sylvia, at a recent London protest outside the Italian Embassy (photo: courtesy of the campaigners).
Abbebe Alemayohu

Abbebe Alemayohu watched Mussolini's troops looting the obelisk in 1937.
The covered hole where the obelisk will be returned to

The covered hole in Axum, where it's hoped - one day - the obelisk will be returned.
Mike Thomson with an obelisk in Axum

Mike Thomson with one of the obelisks that still stand in Axum, during his visit to Ethiopia early this year.
Only a few months ago we brought you news that thousands of Ethiopians were preparing to celebrate the return of their treasured 2,000 year-old Axum Obelisk. Sadly, despite numerous promises and signs of hope, they are still no nearer getting hold of this seventy foot high piece of history.

Frustration and disappointment has now spilled onto the streets and led to demonstrations in London and Washington . 

The one hundred ton monument was looted by Mussolini's troops in 1937 and the Italian government has been promising to return it ever since.

Pulses starting racing in Ethiopia last year when the Obelisk, which many claim marks the birth of Christianity there, was removed from it's site in central Rome and taken in three pieces to the city's military airport. There it was specially packed and placed in a warehouse ready to be shipped home.

Yet instead of being flown back to Axum it has sat under an airport tarpaulin ever since.

Outraged Ethiopians, who have long been praying for its return, are demanding to know what the excuses there are this time for not giving it back.

The Italian government has quite a few of those. Ministers had made clear at the end of last year that moving the giant and precious structure was a logistical nightmare. They said that amongst the problems they faced was finding a plane big enough to cope with its enormous weight. That particular hurdle remains.

Rome is now also claiming that it can not afford (at present) to give it back. Shipping costs, which were estimated at 1.5 million euros have now risen to 10 million.

Ethiopian protestors on the streets of London , who describe the obelisk as a missing piece of their bodies, are not very happy with these explanations. They point out that Italy is one of the richest countries on earth and Ethiopia one of the poorest.

How can it be, asked one man at the barricades, that a first world nation like this can not find the money to repair a wrong that it is responsible for?

Others insist that if Mussolini could manage to get the Obelisk from Axum to Rome in 1937, without the aid of modern technology, the Italian government should be able to do it now.

When the leader of the demonstration Professor Richard Pankhurst had handed in a protest letter to the Italian Embassy, I asked him how optimistic he is that his latest efforts might finally succeed. He replied: " I am not very hopeful. I will only feel really hopeful when I actually see the obelisk on the plane home ."

Click here to read or listen to Mike's initial report on plans for the obelisk's return from early 2004.

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