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  • The Obelisk of Axum

The Obelisk of Axum

It’s been a 71-year-long odyssey, but the Obelisk of Axum, which for decades stood proudly in Rome, has pride of place once more in its ancestral African home.

The 1,700-year-old monument, looted when Italy’s Fascist troops occupied the-then Abyssinia in 1937, was formally unveiled in the ancient northern Ethiopian city of Axum on September

Italian Foreign Under-secretary Alfredo Mantica, Ethiopian leader Girma Wolde Giorgis, PM Meles Zenawi and an official from the UN’s cultural arm Unesco were among the dignitaries who watched as two giant Italian and Ethiopian flags masking the near-80ft column were ceremonially pulled away to reveal it in all its glory.

Mr Mantani said the historic moment had once more sealed the bond of friendship between the two countries. It is a friendship that down the years was tested to breaking point; its route back to East Africa has been a long and tortuous one. 

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had intended the 160-tonne artefact to have pride of place in Eur, the Rome district he intended to be a showpiece of Fascist town planning.

Instead it was erected in front of the Ministry for African Colonies, a building that currently houses the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Following the fall of the Axis powers Italy pledged to return it in 1947. It would be nearly six decades before that promise was kept.

Rome signed formal agreements to send back the monument in 1956 and again in 1997. They came to nothing, although hopes to return it after the 1997 pledge were scuppered by the war between Ethiopia and neighbouring Eritrea.

However, proof of Italy’s foot-dragging came in 2001, when Culture Ministry official Vittorio Sgarbi suggested the obelisk had become “a naturalised citizen” and should remain in Italy. The following year it suffered severe damage when a thunderstorm sent large slabs of its stone crashing to the ground.

The logjam between the two governments was broken only in 2003 when the East African country threatened to cut off diplomatic ties.

But even then it was far from plain sailing. The runway at Axum airport needed to be upgraded. Meanwhile, Rome had difficulty in getting suitable air transportation and had to hire an Antonov, the world’s biggest civilian cargo airliner, to fly it to Ethiopia in three large sections.

Then to complicate matters, Unesco voiced fears that plans to reassemble the monument in Axum could disturb the vast network of ancient tombs on the site.

Now, however, the obelisk once more stands proudly over Axum. Italian expert Mauro Cristini, who oversaw the work, recognises it has, in a small way, helped close one of the less glorious chapters in Italy’s colonial history. As he put it: “Ethiopia’s people will be able to see it in its original site. Now the circle is closed.”