The Axum Obelisk


In northern Ethiopia a pit has been prepared to accommodate a vast obelisk that was looted from Axum by Mussolini in 1937. The obelisk - the only one on two continents weighing over 100 tonnes - was situated in a square in Rome in front of what was once the ‘Ministry for Italian Africa’ (now the FAO building). Meanwhile Ethiopians await, with barely suppressed excitement, its return to Axum where it will take its place among other obelisks on the original site.

The Axumite kingdom was established between 200 and 100 BC and was once one of the four kingdoms of the world. The legendary Queen of Sheba reigned in the region eight or nine centuries earlier; her historic journey to King Solomon’s court in 980 BC, with 700 camels loaded with gold, ivory and other gifts, is well documented in the Old Testament. Her bathing pool and substantial remains of her palace can still be found in Axum.

The kingdom’s influence spread throughout the Horn from eastern Sudan to Berbera. The Axum civilisation was one of the first to adopt Christianity (in the early 4th century), but the obelisks pre-date the Christian period. Perceived as the cradle of Ethiopian civilisation and once the gateway between Africa and Asia, Axum was a thriving trading centre when Jesus was preaching in Palestine. Ships from Egypt, India and other countries in the orient stopped off there to load up with gold, ivory, incense, spices, hides as well as live animals such as elephants and monkeys.

Axum Archaelogical Site, Tigray

The Site
Axum is home to the world’s tallest obelisks. The stolen obelisk and others are carved with ‘doors’ and ‘windows’ and is thought, like Stonehenge, to have some solar or astronomical measuring role.

Italy promised in writing - in the 1947 Peace Treaty - to return the obelisk to Axum and is closer than ever to doing so. Past ‘technical difficulties’ have been overcome; the obelisk cannot be transported in one piece and technical discussions revolved around whether to cut the obelisk where it had previously broken or cut it in a straight line along its door/window emblems. Agreement was eventually reached on the latter option.

Then there were discussions about whether it should be transported by plane or by ship. It was decided that, as there were planes that had the capacity, the obelisk should be sent by plane.

Ato Tadele, who is the engineer in charge of the return process, says that ‘the Italian government has shown its full commitment to return the obelisk’. Delays have been inevitable because of its World Heritage status: ‘all technical and conservation aspects to dismantle the obelisk had to be carefully investigated and assessed’.

In the autumn of 1998 Ethiopia issued exquisite ‘return of the obelisk’ postage stamps – a set of four. The largest petition in Ethiopia’s history, which called for the return of the obelisk, was signed in 1997 by thousands of Ethiopians.

The return of the obelisk is seen in Ethiopia as a triumph both for Ethiopia and Italy. Ato Tadele says: ‘The present government of Italy deserves to be congratulated for returning the obelisk in accordance to the agreement signed in 1947 both by the Ethiopian and Italian governments. This good news shall be a cause of jubilation all over Ethiopia.’

On 9th September 2000 a team of experts comprising Italian scientists and Ethiopian technical experts met in Addis to discuss the transportation of the Axum obelisk from outside the UN ‘s FAO headquarters in Rome to its home in Axum.

On 7th November 2003 Italian workers detached the top section of the Axum Obelisk, which had been standing in central Rome since 1937, using computer-guided jacks. Dozens of workers in hard hats laboured to painstakingly detach the section, a block seven metres long weighing 40 tonnes. "The difficulty is that we don't want to create any cracks, any damage, only to separate the pieces where they were joined when the obelisk arrived in Rome," said Giorgio Croci, the engineer in charge of dismantling the monument.

The separation of the second section of the obelisk was successfully completed on 25th November 2003. The second segment is 8.9 metres long and weighs 71 tonnes. The Ethiopian ambassador to Italy, members of the Ethiopian community in Rome and other concerned bodies attended the occasion. The last segment of the Stelae was detached from its concrete base on 22nd December 2003, and was transferred to where the other pieces are located – a warehouse near Rome’s Fiumicino airport – awaiting a plane large enough to take them to Axum. The third part of the Axum Obelisk weighs 77 tonnes and is 8.50 metres long.

Engineer Croci said the complex operation would be over by the end of the year, and if all went according to plan, the obelisk could arrive in Ethiopia by next spring.

The new Yohannes IV Airport terminal, opened on 15th July 2000 in Axum, is awaiting the return of the obelisk.

Latest News

 Tuesday 19th April 2005       It has begun! Obelisk returns to Ethiopia

The first section of the 1,700-year old Axum obelisk has arrived back in Ethiopia, 68 years after it was looted by Italian fascists.

The Antonov 124 cargo plane landed just before dawn this morning with the first section of the obelisk; the rest is set to follow within in a week.

A crowd of Ethiopian ministers, priests and other VIPs watched the plane land and huge celebrations are expected to take place in Axum later today. Full celebrations will be held in May, after Lenten fasting is over (Ethiopian Easter is late this year – 1st May). The obelisk will then be re-erected after the rainy season, in September.

Many Ethiopians see the obelisk as an important national symbol – its return has been subject to great national anticipation and excitement. Seized back in 1937 by Italian troops, it was taken to Rome where it remained, despite a 1947 UN agreement to return it to Ethiopia. It was eventually dismantled into three pieces in 2004 in preparation for its journey home, an operation which is costing Italy an estimated 6 million euros (£4.1 million).

The Italian company responsible for transporting the obelisk to Axum, Lattanzi, has described the obelisk as the largest and heaviest object ever transported by air. Heaters were installed to protect the monument from freezing air temperatures, and steel bars were wrapped around the obelisk to stabilise it in case of turbulence during the six-hour flight. Furthermore, the airstrip at Axum had to be upgraded to handle the aircraft and radar installed.

The obelisk’s return had been beset by “technical difficulties” and repeatedly postponed, the most recent delay occurring last week, disappointing Ethiopians and the country’s government, which had planned a national celebration to mark the return of the obelisk.

"We are ready to receive our precious treasure that was stolen from us 70 years ago," said Tadele Bitul Kibret of Ethiopia's Ministry of Culture.

See the official return website for up-to-date information.

 Friday 22nd April 2005         Second part of Axum Obelisk now back

The second part of the Axum obelisk arrived back in Ethiopia this morning.

The top section of the obelisk arrived earlier today, after the middle piece was returned on Tuesday. The arrival of this second part of the obelisk was welcomed by members of the National Committee for the Return of Axum Obelisk and officials and residents of Axum town.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is expected to travel to Axum on Monday to lead national celebrations when the final part of the stele is scheduled to return.

With the return of the bottom section of the monument on Monday – the monument had to be broken into three pieces in preparation for transit - the obelisk will finally be back in Ethiopia after 68 years absence, having been looted by Italian fascist troops in the 1930s.

While the final piece is expected on Monday, the monument is not due to be re-erected until September, after the rainy season.

Back in Ethiopia: the middle section of the obelisk is the first to return after 68 years. Photo © Andrew Heavens.