Ethiopian football fans demand return of Axum obelisk looted by Mussolini

Official campaign for restitution of sculptured stele


Ethiopians in all walks of life are demanding the return from Italy of the ancient Axum obelisk, looted in 1937 on the personal orders of Mussolini, and retained in Rome in violation of the Italian Peace Treaty of 1947. Demands for the obelisk’s return were recently voiced in a petition signed by over 500 prominent Ethiopians, including a former Prime Minister, Lij Mikael Imru, a son of Ras Imru Hailé Sellassié, a leading Ethiopian commander during the Italian invasion of 1935-36; a former Foreign Minister, Dedjazmatch Zewde Gabre Sellassié; and the internationally known artist Afewerk Teklé. The petition is supported by numerous international scholars of Ethiopia and Africa, among them the Russian historian of Axum, Yuri Kobischanov; the British archaeologist, David Buxton; the Italian historian of Ethiopia, Angelo Del Boca; and the African historian Ali Mazuri. An Ethiopian Committee for the Return of the Axum Obelisk was recently established in Addis Abbaba. In a televised demonstration, held during an international football match in the Ethiopian capital, demonstrators carried posters demanding the obelisk’s return, and 40,000 football fans chanted, “Let it return”. The history of the obelisk in Italy began half a century ago. Shortly after his occupation of Addis Abbaba in 1936, Mussolini ordered the seizure of one of the famous obelisks at the ancient Ethiopian city of Axum. These finely sculptured stele date to around the first century AD and the biggest is the largest single stone ever worked on by man. Since it was too heavy to transport, the second largest, measuring twenty-eight metres in height was taken and erected in Rome 28 October 1937, to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of the fascist March on Rome. The stele was placed in front of the Ministry of Italian Africa, today headquarters of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation. At the end of the war Italy agreed, in Article 37 of the Peace Treaty of 1947, to return all objects looted from Ethiopia after 3 October 1935, the date of the start of the Italian invasion. Despite Ethiopian demands for its restitution, the obelisk, by far the most important looted object, was not returned. The Ethiopian Parliament was so exasperated that it passed a unanimous resolution in 1968 begging Emperor Hailé Sellassié not to visit Italy until the monument’s return. The Ethiopian revolution of 1974, which toppled Emperor Hailé Sellassié, postponed Ethiopian agitation about the obelisk, but this has now been taken up again with renewed force. The demand is supported by the present Ethiopian Foreign Minister, Seyoum Mesfin, who pledges his government’s “wholehearted and continued support” for the “noble cause” of the obelisk’s return.

Ethiopians consider the obelisk an integral part of their cultural heritage; they need its return as part of the restoration of their historic capital now underway. Ethiopia’s argument for the restoration of the stele is not only the moral one; it is also the legal one enshrined in international law, the Italian Peace Treaty of 1947.

Richard Pankhurst

University of Addis Abbaba

At an Italo-Ethiopian conference twenty years ago, experts who had overseen the transport of the Axum obelisk to Italy decided that it was too fragile to risk the home trip. It seems that in compensation it was agreed that Italy should build a hospital in Ethiopa. It is possible however that the current Ethiopian regime has ignored the compromise reached by its predecessors.