[Documents menu] Documents menu

Date: Mon, 11 Oct 1999 20:55:07 -0500 (CDT)
From: Third World Network <twnet@po.jaring.my>
Subject: TWN: Ethiopian historical antiques being stolen
Organization: Institute for Global Communications
Article: 79194
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.11147.19991012121624@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

Ethiopian historical antiques being stolen

By Yemisrach Benalfew, Third Word Network, October 1999

Antiques stolen from the Ethiopian Orthodox churches are being sold on the international market, according to the Ethiopian Ministry of Information and Culture.

Priests, monks and armed robbers steal manuscripts, crosses, icons and crowns to sell to brokers, tourists and international antique dealers, the head of the Department of Cultural Heritage, Inventory and Investigation, Mamitu Yilma, says.

’The 800 years of dedication by priests to save the relics is probably declining,’ says Professor Richard Pankhurst, a historian.

The extent of the looting is not known. ’We don’t know the exact amount of Ethiopia’s artifact losses due to the lack of registration,’ says the department of culture. Up to now, only 45,000 ancient objects have been registered.

Registration is now underway, and the results are expected soon. In fact, some 20 or 30 years ago, only manuscripts were on the international market, according to Pankhurst. Now, virtually every item, stolen from Ethiopia, is on the market, he says.

Ethiopia is estimated to have more than half a million manuscripts, Yilma says.

According to the department of culture, more than 2,000 antiques have disappeared in Amhara region, north of Ethiopia, in the past 10 years.

Yilma says most of the buyers are European or American, and that Britain, Germany and the United States still dominate the market.

The antiques are mainly smuggled by diplomats, researchers, and missionaries, according to a report presented last year at a symposium in the capital Addis Ababa to discuss ways of curbing the illicit movement of the artifacts.

The report has identified 3,415 manuscripts, crosses, paintings, church materials, cloth and jewels of Ethiopian origin, weapons, archaeological findings (gold, silver and bronze coins of the Axumite dynasty of Ethiopia of the early 4th-10th centuries), as well as statues.

Ethiopian stone writings have also been found in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Israel, the Vatican and Belgium.

Belgium has returned a cross, dating back 800 years, made of brass, stolen from a Lalibela church, one of the seven international sites preserved as historical sites by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), according to a spokesperson at the Belgian embassy in Addis Ababa.

Germany has 1,000 handwritten manuscripts, Britain 830, and France 750 from the 13th and the 20th centuries, the report says.

Britain acquired most of its collection through its looting of King Tewodros’ kingdom in 1868.

According to Ethiopian history, an expedition led by General Napier stormed the emperor’s seat, Magdala, and looted the palace to release British prisoners. As a result, ’the British library has the richest and most comprehensive collection of Ethiopian manuscripts of Gondar, the 19th century Ethiopia’s political seat,’ according to Pankhurst.

The Ethiopian antiques in Britain are estimated to be worth about US$5.1 billion, plus compensation for keeping them for more than 100 years, which amount to more than Ethiopia’s gross national product (GNP), according to Seymour Mclean, founder of the London-based Ras Tafari International Consultants.

The Buckingham Palace says the royal library has six Ethiopian manuscripts presented to Queen Victoria by the British museum in 1868. ’The queen regards herself as its trustee and the collection as inalienable,’ a statement from the Buckingham Palace said in 1995.

One manuscript taken from Emperor Tewodro’s library is on sale in a rare bookshop in England, Sam Fogg Rare Books and Manuscripts, for US$75,000, says a lobbyist for the return of the Magdala loot.

To prevent Ethiopia’s heritage leaving the country, the Society of Friends of the Institutes of Ethiopian Studies was established in 1967/68.

Pankhurst, a founder of the society, says the society has bought 300 icons, crosses, manuscripts and paintings since then.—Third World Network Features