Sat, Dec 20, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Return of Ethiopian monolith raises questions of cultural looting

By Frank Bruni  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , Rome

The planning for the trip took nearly a year, and that followed decades of delays, broken promises and uncertainty about whether it would ever happen.

The packing is taking months, as special computers and jittery engineers painstakingly monitor the process.

Seldom has the movement of an object entailed so much waiting and worrying, friction and fuss. But then the monolith in question is going a long way, from Italy to Ethiopia, and carries with it an epic history of conflicts big and small.

More than six decades ago, a grasping, striving and not altogether pleasant imperialist named Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia and plundered some of its treasures, including a roughly 80-foot-high, 200-tonne obelisk from the ancient city of Aksum. He hauled it back to Rome in 1937 and put it in front of a structure here built to house a ministry for Italian colonies.

That building is now the headquarters of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and that carved granite pillar is now being dismantled, section by section, for transport back to Aksum, where it was first erected some 1,700 years ago.

For Ethiopians, it is a matter of sweet, overdue justice.

"It was about time," said Mengistu Hulluka, the Ethiopian ambassador to Italy.

But the significance of the obelisk's transfer is more than emotional. Its return to Ethiopia also reflects changes in Italy's attitudes toward its Fascist past and a wider re-examination of whether countries should be able to keep works of art taken from other lands.

European museums are full of what can be seen as cultural loot, and European governments have long been reluctant to part with it.

Italy held on to the Aksum obelisk despite a 1947 UN peace treaty that mandated its return and several subsequent formal agreements between Italy and Ethiopia that the obelisk should and would go home.

Italy held on to the obelisk even though it did not demonstrate any particular appreciation for it.

The obelisk did not tower over the center of one of Rome's many grand and glorious squares. It stood, instead, beside a noisy, traffic-choked intersection, without a plaque or anything else to alert passers-by to its antiquity.

"There was no label!" said Tarekegne Taka, a leader of Ethiopians in Italy, his voice booming with indignation. "Not even a label!"

It was, Taka said, as if the Italians were "trying to hide it in the middle of Rome."

The reality was perhaps less devious but no more flattering to Italy. Hulluka said one of the biggest problems was the rapid turnover of Italian leaders.

"We would negotiate with one government," he said, "and then the government would change." Italy has had more than 50 governments since the end of World War II.

From one of those governments to the next, a general reluctance persisted, and so did a fierce core of opposition by Italian conservatives. They asserted that the victor really should hold on to the spoils and that Ethiopia was too poor and unstable to guarantee the artifact's safety.

"You can be poor and still have your pride," Taka, said adding that Ethiopia's troubles made it even more eager to have the obelisk, a remnant and reminder of all that Ethiopians had been able to accomplish in the past.

As for how well Ethiopia could tend to the artifact, he said: "That's our business. The Italians have neglected their own national monuments for centuries, even though their tourism industry depends on them."

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