Controversy Erupts Over Return of Aksum Obelisk

UN Integrated Regional Information Network (UNIRIN), 24 July 2001

Nairobi—The Ethiopian government has reacted angrily to remarks last week by an Italian government official who opposes the return to Ethiopia of an ancient stone obelisk, taken to Rome in 1937 on the orders of the Italian fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini. Reports in the Milan daily ‘Corriere della Sera’ quote Vittorio Sgardi, deputy minister in the Italian ministry of culture and a leading art critic, as saying the obelisk had been in Italy so long it was now a “naturalized citizen”. The 24-metre high obelisk was cut into three pieces and shipped to Rome following the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. It was erected in Rome's Piazza di Porta Capena, in front of what was then the colonial ministry—now the headquarters of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.

As a signatory of the 1947 United Nations treaty, Italy was obligated to return property looted from Ethiopia during the fascist occupation within 18 months, but despite years of lobbying it was not until April 1997 that the Italian government signed an agreement with Addis Ababa pledging to return the obelisk to its original site in Aksum, northern Ethiopia. The outbreak of war between Ethiopian and Eritrea in May 1998 is said to have delayed the return of the monument, but following a visit to Addis Ababa by an Italian government official in December last year, the Ethiopian government said it expected the return to take place within the year.

However, according to Sgali, returning the obelisk to Ethiopia would be inappropriate, as “at its age it would arrive broken”. Instead, Italy should spend the money allotted for the move to repair other obelisks still in Ethiopia, the Italian news agency ANSA, quotes him as saying. The Aksum Obelisk is the tallest of three carved stone stelae dating back to the Aksumite kingdom, which reached the height of its wealth and influence 3,000 years ago. Studies sponsored by the UN have already recommended how the monument should be transported back to Ethiopia and restored to its original site.

The Ethiopian foreign ministry said in a statement on 21 July that it was “surprised and saddened” by the reports that Italy would not return the obelisk. Girum Abay, acting director of the European and American department of the ministry, told the state-run Ethiopian News Agency that as a signatory to the 1947 treaty, Italy had international obligations to return the obelisk to its rightful owner. “The Aksum Obelisk is the property of Ethiopia,” Girum said.