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. \nThe packing is taking months, as special computers and jittery engineers painstakingly monitor the process. \nSeldom 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. \nMore 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. \nThat 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. \nFor Ethiopians, it is a matter of sweet, overdue justice. \n"It was about time," said Mengistu Hulluka, the Ethiopian ambassador to Italy. \nBut 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. \nEuropean museums are full of what can be seen as cultural loot, and European governments have long been reluctant to part with it. \nItaly 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. \nItaly held on to the obelisk even though it did not demonstrate any particular appreciation for it. \nThe 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. \n"There was no label!" said Tarekegne Taka, a leader of Ethiopians in Italy, his voice booming with indignation. "Not even a label!" \nIt was, Taka said, as if the Italians were "trying to hide it in the middle of Rome." \nThe 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. \n"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. \nFrom 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. \n"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. \nAs 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." \nEven now, with most of the obelisk dismantled and the last bit surrounded by fencing and workers, grudges are still being vented and gripes still being expressed. \nVittorio Sgarbi, a former under secretary in the Ministry of Culture, said the obelisk should remain in Italy, because Italy "had colonized Ethiopia during the years of the object's transfer, and so this really can't be considered a theft." \nSgarbi also said the obelisk could not be as effective an advertisement for Ethiopian achievement once it went back to Aksum -- which is far from Addis Ababa and near Ethiopia's border with Eritrea -- because that area has a tiny fraction of the tourists that Rome receives. \nIt was under the current prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, that the Italian government finally budged. That was in part because lightning struck, literally. A bolt hit the obelisk last year, causing a block of it to tumble. \nThe Ethiopian government became frightened and redoubled its lobbying efforts at an opportune time. Some of the post-Fascist politicians in Berlusconi's government were trying to distance themselves from Fascism, an effort that recently yielded a trip by the deputy prime minister, Gianfranco Fini, to Israel. \nThe remaining challenge was to take the obelisk apart, so that it could be moved, without damaging it further. \n"We had to develop a really sophisticated system," said Giorgio Croci, the Roman engineer in charge of the dismantling. "This operation is very high-tech." \nIt involves sensors and computers that monitor the stress to which the obelisk is being subjected, special belts and cushions of carbon fiber and resin and many weeks of incremental work. The dismantling began in late October and is still under way. \nIf all goes well, the obelisk could be in Aksum, one of Ethiopia's most important archaeological sites, by the spring, and Italy will have set an example that other European governments may feel more pressure to follow. \n"This may be a starting point, really, for returning the cultural heritages of many countries," Hulluka said. "What has been the thinking in the past is no longer a reflection of the present."
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