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

Article excerpt

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. …


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