Although nothing is settled, it now looks more likely that the obelisk of Axum, after sixty years in Rome, will be returned to its rightful owners.
Paradoxical as it may seem, the work involved in returning a monument weighing 180 tons to the Ethiopian plateau is just as complicated, and in some respects even more so, than it was during the Fascist era.
The Axumite obelisk in Rome is the second of a group of six that may have been carved when Christianity first arrived in Ethiopia in the first half of the fourth century. They are enormous tombstones, from thirty-three to seventeen metres in height, each one different but all symbolising a block of dwellings several storeys high with carved doors and windows, and, at intervals, characteristic, unique relief circles.
Fascism required a symbol of Axum to be housed in Rome for posterity. The restoration work done on the column was known to be irreversible: for example, the swallowtail joints used to hold the pieces of the column together cannot be removed. The pieces were picked up off the ground, hundreds of years after the stele was toppled by a series of earthquakes.
Numerous problems face the team of experts appointed by the Minister for Foreign Affairs in removing, transporting and restoring the famous stele. For some reason this writer was not included in the team, despite being invited at the outset, having studied the Axum obelisks since 1991 at the invitation of the Ethiopian government and made a special study of the site of the Roman stele.
The case of the Axumite obelisk in Rome is complicated by the fact that it has to be returned and restored to a context which, to put it bluntly, no longer exists. It is not as simple as replacing the blocks of Trajan’s column if, for example, the American troops had removed them as war booty in 1944. In fact in 1936, when the engineers took on the incredible task of loading the broken pieces of the stele on to lorries, these were scattered all over the ground, some of them half buried, in one of the many courtyards in the village of Axum. One of the smaller fragments was found (and is still there) near the wall surrounding the church of Maryâm Sion where, according to Coptic tradition, the Ark of the Covenant containing the laws given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai was kept. Missing parts were replaced in Rome using a stone that is now indistinguishable from the original.
It would be virtually impossible to return the stele in one piece. It is made from four smaller pieces held together, is not self-supporting and would break as soon as it leaned to one side. It would therefore have to be transported in a heavy, rigid steel casing twenty-three metres long; its land journey would be along roads and across bridges that were built during the Italian occupation. The bridges that in 1936 were unable to support the weight of military vehicles laden with single pieces, would be unable to bear the weight of the entire obelisk today—plus the weight of the casing and vehicle.
The method of dismembering the stele will depend on how it is used in Ethiopia. The stele is fixed into its Roman foundation of travertine and peperino, and pneumatic drills could be used to free it. The real problem is separating pieces held together by metal pins embedded in concrete. It has been suggested that the stele should be sawn horizontally into three or four pieces along the horizontal indentations characteristic of the piece. To me this solution represents an unjustifiable interference which would inflict lasting damage on the monument.
If the idea is to dispose the fragments of the stele on the ground as they lay for centuries then it must be remembered that the plain where they lay (after the earthquake) was rearranged when it was made into a park. In addition, for the past few years the archaeological excavations carried out by the English archaeologist David Philipson have uncovered a dense underground network of burial chambers and connecting tunnels. They have also proved that the obelisks were funeral monuments. Obviously no archaeologist would approve either of the re-erection of the monument on a reinforced concrete base or the wholesale replacement of it in a straight line on the ground, in pieces, in its original location right in the middle of an archaeological excavation.
The stele must be dismembered by sawing along the lines of its old breaks-which are easily discernible. Neither metal nor wooden wedges should be used to separate the internal joins because this would create pressures that might cause further breaks in the stone along its weakest lines. Helical saws should be used, capable of following the general external lines of the fractures even if unable to follow the internal contours exactly. If this is done, the metal joints used by the restorers in 1936 would automatically be cut out. How should the resulting pieces be returned to Ethiopia? Axum airport is not ideally suited to receiving the American Lockheed C5-A Galaxy and the Russian Antonov An-124 Ravan, the only two existing transport planes large enough to carry such heavy loads.
The only way, and it would be much slower and less flashy, would be to load lorries containing sections of the obelisk on to a roll-on roll-off steamer and to transport them to the port of Massawa and over the mountains and rivers to Axum. Or by air to Asmara and then to Axum by helicopter.
Finally, there is the question of the eventual restoration which will certainly arouse debate among those concerned over the official return of the obelisk.
Let us suppose that it was decided to replace the obelisk in its original site (it is for the Ethiopians alone to decide), the surface of the original breaks would have to be sanded to hide marks made by the metal joints. The result would look like a French baguette cut into slices. If the Ethiopians decided to re-erect the obelisk it would have to be supported, using materials that would allow it to be dismantled again in the future.
I should suggest that the Axumite stele be erected in front of the new archaeological museum in Axum, as the Egyptian statues rescued from the rising waters of the Nile have been used to adorn the museums of Khartoum and Aswan: in a completely new context because the original context has gone for ever.