After 54 years of procrastination, the Italian Government could be close to returning the Axum obelisk to Ethiopia.
The 75-foot monument, which dates to the first century AD, was looted from the holy city of Axum by Mussolini in 1937, two years after the dictator’s imperial ambitions had led to Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia.
It was decreed in the 1947 Italian Peace Treaty that the obelisk be returned. In 1997 the Italian government announced that it finally agreed to abide by the treaty. In Ethiopia, where football matches had taken place to the routine chanting of “We want our obelisk”, stamps were issued in celebration.
It has taken Italy five years to produce a concrete plan for the monument’s transportation back to Ethiopia, while conservation experts debated how to move the 200-tonne obelisk without damaging it. Meanwhile, the monument has stood in a busy traffic junction in the centre of Rome.
At the behest of the Italian Ministry of Culture, Giorgio Croci, professor of engineering at Rome University, has produced a report which suggests that the obelisk be divided into three parts using the original breaks made by Mussolini’s troops.
Professor Croci’s task was complicated by the necessity of complying with Italy’s strict conservation laws which dictate that no damage be done to the monument. The breaks made by Mussolini’s soldiers were irregular (the stone is a soft granite) and could easily splinter and crack. Computer simulations helped Professor Croci devise a scheme to coat the obelisk in a protective layer of resins, reinforcing the area above and below the original breaks, and then exerting pressure with jacks to loosen the joints.
Once divided, the obelisk can be flown back to Axum with its protective coatings in place to protect it from the vibrations at landing. In Axum, a team of engineers will be able to reassemble the obelisk using stainless steel pins specially designed to withstand the seismic activity that affects eastern Ethiopia.
Professor Croci’s plans are now in the hands of the Italian Ministry of Culture.
• Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper with the headline "Divide and return to Ethiopia"