As aid agencies struggle to access and respond to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Tigray, a comparatively minor note of physical destruction has understandably garnered little attention. In a region largely inaccessible since the Ethiopian government’s “law enforcement exercise” was unleashed, accurate on-the-ground information has been limited. Conflicting reports from November 2020 however pointed to fighting and mass killings in and around Axum town, the historical capital of the Aksumite Empire, along with damage to the local airport. The runway had previously been extended to accommodate aircraft repatriating the Obelisk of Axum from Rome. Looted during the Italian invasion of the 1930s, the history of the monument offers a unique window not only on the challenges and controversies of rectifying cultural vandalism, but also the current conflict.
The theft of the obelisk falls neatly into the broader study of extractive colonialism. While the “appropriation of ancient cultures for the glorification of European power” dates back centuries, an acceleration can be traced to the imperial age. Classical Greco-Roman symbols of antiquity were highly sought-after and replicated in aspiring empires, followed by a fascination for the “Orient” among European elites after Napoleon’s ill-fated conquest of Egypt. The dissection and allocation of African territories from the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference onwards further expanded and intensified the process. Italy arrived late to the banquet with what Otto von Bismarck described as a “large appetite and rotten teeth”. Yet after suffering numerous setbacks, including in Adwa in 1896, Ethiopian resistance was overcome during the Second Italian-Abyssinian War and the spoils of war were duly appropriated.
The display of pillaged treasures is hardly unique to Italy and can be found throughout the museums and squares of former colonial powers. What has gained impetus in recent years is a recognition of how such items were obtained, accompanied by more vocal demands for restitution. The convenient rhetoric of the “universalist” museum claiming to be a repository safeguarding global culture can now seem deeply out-of-step with attempts of formerly subjugated nations to reclaim their history. But if a new dynamic is indeed underway there is still little in the way of concrete action. The return of the Obelisk of Axum remains an exception rather than the rule. To appreciate how this occurred, it is necessary to understand not only the process of restitution and its importance to contemporary Ethiopia, but how this is intertwined with internal debates over identity and power.
The demographics of Tigray do not reflect its historical importance. Bordering Eritrea and Sudan, and containing an estimated 6 million inhabitants in a country of 113 million, the region has been considered a descendant of the Kingdom of Aksum and the birthplace of Ethiopian Christianity. The former dominated the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea between the Roman and Persian empires until the eighth century CE and the arrival of Islam, while the latter dates from the conversion of King Ezana in the fourth century CE. Obelisks of varying sizes, or stelae fields, are numerous around Axum although the largest have for the most part collapsed, either deliberately demolished or the result of earthquakes.This includes what became known as the Obelisk of Axum, a massive structure decorated with false doors and windows on all sides that pointed to a royal burial site.
The obelisk was “discovered” by Italian soldiers in late 1935, half-buried and broken into three pieces. Weighing 160 tonnes and measuring 24 metres, removal to Italy was excruciating. Following excavation and further separation into five sections, each part was trucked overland to the port of Massawa (in present-day Eritrea) before being shipped to Naples on the Adwa. Reassembled in front of the Ministry of Italian Africa in Rome’s Porta Capena Square (the post-war headquarters of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization), the obelisk’s official inauguration on 28 October 1937 was highly symbolic. Marking the fifteenth anniversary of the fascists coming to power through the “March on Rome”, the unveiling of the Obelisk of Axum was also a gesture of revenge as per the earlier defeats as well as signifying a new Italian empire.
Mussolini’s African hubris did not last four years and agitation for the return of looted artefacts began almost immediately after the collapse of his forces in East Africa. This was formalized in the 1947 Peace Treaty which specified the restitution of all stolen objects to Ethiopia within eighteen months. A 1956 bilateral treaty between Ethiopia and Italy further detailed the return of cultural items, notably the Obelisk of Axum. In practice there was little movement, exemplified by the helpful suggestion from an Italian Foreign Affairs official that a small notice simply be added to the obelisk declaring a “Gift from the Ethiopian People”. Disputed accounts have also circulated in which the obelisk could remain in Rome in exchange for the construction of a hospital or the cancellation of debts. By the time Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in the 1974 Marxist uprising, the only item of significance that had been returned was a bronze statue of the Lion of Judah.
Tigrayan influence over national politics had long-since diminished on the eve of the fascist invasion, progressively marginalized after the death of the last emperor hailing from the region half-a-century earlier. For some of the local elite, the Italian conflict presented an opportunity for Tigray to reclaim both prestige and autonomy, aspirations amplified in subsequent resistance to the communist Derg. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) would come to dominate guerrilla groups opposing Mengistu Haile Mariam’s dictatorship, eventually overthrowing the regime in 1991. Concurrently, exiles from the civil war had added their voices to an influential diaspora that had continued campaigning for the restitution of the Obelisk of Axum.
The TPLF, under the auspices of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), would effectively rule the country for the next twenty-seven years. Among the myriad of tasks faced by the new government reclaiming the Obelisk of Axum featured prominently, although in this instance a favourable response was received in 1997. Reluctance mixed with paternalism would remain, including a suggestion that the obelisk had become a “naturalized citizen” and that Ethiopians should consider themselves fortunate to have a “window on the Eternal City and the rich world.” But in reality, practical challenges now outweighed political misgivings. Hostility with neighbouring Eritrea precluded a return voyage from the coast, while access to Axum’s archaeological site and nearby airport was constrained by poor infrastructure. And then there was the cost.
Although the obligation for Italy to cover expenses related to the repatriation of Ethiopia’s stolen heritage dates from the 1947 Peace Treaty, it was not until a new protocol was signed in November 2004 that the process truly got underway. Axum’s airport was duly expanded to receive the Antonov cargo plane that would transport the structure in three separate sections, reportedly the largest air freight in history, and completed in April 2005. Also included in the restitution cost was eventual reassembly and restoration under the supervision of UNESCO, notably the insertion of Kevlar bars to avoid the repetition of a lightning strike that had earlier damaged the obelisk’s summit. The entire operation was concluded in preparation for a ceremony in September 2008 that marked the closure of Ethiopian millennium celebrations.
There should be little doubt about the importance restitution had for Ethiopia, nor the specific significance for Tigray. The official re-inauguration of the Obelisk of Axum contained multiple messages. Revisiting a glorious past reflected political and economic ambitions beyond its borders while domestically, Tigray’s position as the “natural and historic” leader of the country was seemingly reaffirmed. This narrative is all the more striking given recent developments. The appointment of a Prime Minister from outside the northern power-base in 2018; peace overtures to an historic foe in Eritrea; and the dismantling of the ruling party, has led to a collapse of Tigrayan influence on the national scene with dramatic consequences. The descent into conflict a direct backlash at attempts to recalibrate national identity beyond a single region or, in the eyes of some, at their own expense.
The current suffering and loss of life in northern Ethiopia is a far more pressing concern than the fate of stone edifices. But addressing the former is helped by understanding the latter, including painful questions of restitution. The pillaging of the global South for artefacts was not an annex to the brutality of colonialism, it was intrinsically intertwined. Museum collections are an obvious reminder, and the Obelisk of Axum a highly visible example. In Brutish Museums, Dan Hicks has pointed to the danger that “contemporary rhetoric of ‘decolonizing’ museums is an attempt at the cancellation of debts that arise from the colonial past.” As concerns Italy and Ethiopia, despite a seventy-year wait, that particular debt was paid. But the story of the obelisk, and the symbolism attached, is hardly over. Representations of the past can provide legitimacy. And the long-standing grievances that have led to open hostility in Tigray are very much linked to the use and selective appropriation of history.
Duncan McLean has managed operations with Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders in numerous countries, and is currently senior researcher with their Research Unit on Humanitarian Stakes and Practices (UREPH) in Geneva. He has lectured on the history of colonialism and epidemiology, and is on the editorial board of the Journal of Humanitarian Affairs. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and in no way represent the organization to which he belongs.