The British Museum has agreed to transfer its Ethiopian tabots (or holy tablets) to a church in London. Later this year the Ethiopians are expected to take over a redundant Anglican church, and a crypt or secure room will then be set aside to house the symbolically-charged wooden objects, which represent the Ark of the Covenant. The museum has agreed to a five-year extendible loan and the tabots may well never again return to the museum. The arrangement has the blessing of the Patriarch, Abba Paulos.
As The Art Newspaper recently revealed, the tabots were last year transferred to a special basement store in the BM, where they are currently inaccessible even to staff (October 2004, pp. 15; 18-19). Ten of the 11 tabots are part of the Ethiopian treasures which were seized by British troops at the battle of Maqdala in 1868. Tabots should only be viewed by the clergy, and the BM has decided to respect the views of the Ethiopian church. In a paper presented to museum trustees last year, the basement store is designated as “a secure chapel area”. Few visitors to the BM are aware that beneath their feet lies a chapel of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
In a separate move, the BM has signed agreements with the Ethiopian authorities to help in the development of museums. Last month a delegation to Addis Ababa undertook to assist the University’s Institute of Ethiopian Studies with a conservation survey of its icons and manuscripts. The BM also agreed to help the National Museum of Ethiopia and the ministry of culture in the establishment of an “ethnographic village”. To be built near the airport, this will house displays on the eighty ethnic groups of Ethiopia.
Meanwhile, the University of Edinburgh has rejected a request for the return of five manuscripts which were seized at the battle of Maqdala. The claim was made by Afromet, based at the University of Addis Ababa. However, the Court of the University of Edinburgh decided that Afromet did not represent the original owner, Emperor Tewodros (Theodorus). Edinburgh agreed to continue the dialogue and provide Addis Ababa with microfilm and digital images of the manuscripts. Afromet has condemned the Edinburgh refusal, quoting an Ethiopian embassy in London spokesman as expressing the hope that the manuscripts will return.