Ethiopian American Forum

Aksum Obelisk Revisited Print E-mail





By Staff Reporter

Ethiopian American Forum

February 22, 2012

It was at the beginning of the Second World War that Pope Pius XI of the Vatican

blessed the Italian army to go and conquer Ethiopia, a country that was

a member of the League of Nations. The Catholic Popes to this date did not

apologize for their crimes and that is a story we will visit some other time. [1] The

Papal blessing was after massive buildup of the Italian army to retaliate for the

humiliation the Italians received in the hands of the army of Emperor Menelik II

of Ethiopia at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. [2]

The Aksum obelisk was taken by the Italian army from Aksum, Ethiopia, at the orders of Mussolini after the Italians managed to haul it away while poisoning Ethiopians with poison gas during World War II. The Italian army took the obelisk from Ethiopia to Italy in 1937. Once in Italy it was erected in Rome in front of an Italian Ministry that later became the headquarters of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. The 24 meter obelisk was one of numerous built prior to introduction of Christianity in Ethiopia around the 4th century AD.

With the defeat of Italy and a 1947 United Nations Peace Treaty Italy bound itself to restore within 18 months all works of arts removed from Ethiopia. By a bilateral 1956 treaty Italy was supposed to dismount, remove and transport the obelisk to Ethiopia within six months. In spite of these Italy dragged its feet for 68 years and refused to return the obelisk of Aksum. Numerous attempts by Emperor Haile Selassie, the military as well as the current governments of Ethiopia and others so that Italy return the obelisk at no cost to Ethiopia were unsuccessful. [3]

The major advocate for the return of the obelisk was Professor Richard Pankhurst of Addis Abeba University. The need for its repatriation gained steam after 1992 and intensified after 2002 when the structure was hit by lightning and a chunk broke off from the top part. Ethiopians lobbied the Italian government and thousands of petitions were signed to no avail and a publication collection with an ሐውልታችንን አሁን መልሱAmharic headline is available at [4]. Plea from the Organization of African Unity, some African ambassadors, prominent personalities from around the world that included Americans, Britons, Ethiopians and Italians were ignored.[5] Instead, there was even an Italian official who threatened to resign if the obelisk returned to Ethiopia. Finally the obelisk was taken down, cut into three pieces and stowed away indefinitely in a bunker near Rome. Bottleneck for its return was because the American government did not want to use its huge airplanes on the excuse that they were busy in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The Italian government claimed that it had no money to cover the cost of transporting the stone pieces, contrary to the previous agreement and allocation of the money to transport it to Ethiopia. ለአክሱም ሐውልት መመለስ ጣሊያን ገንዘብ፣ አሜሪካ አውሮፕላን ከለከሉ [6] reads the headline in an Ethiopian magazine, ጦቢያ የካቲት 25 ቀን 1996 E.C., [] that translates to No Italian Money and no American Planes to Return the Aksum Obelisk.

In a desperate attempt to move things Professor Pankhurst wrote to the American Ambassador in Ethiopia for help in a letter dated March 5, 2004. [7]

I raise this matter of the Aksum obelisk not only in the interest of justice for Ethiopia - and of so many Italian lovers of justice who have long demanded the monument's repatriation, but also for the good name of America. Surely it would be a permanent source of pride and gratification for the American people to point to the obelisk after its return to Aksum, and say, "It was flown back in one of our 'planes!

Will they, on the contrary be obliged to say, "Though it was the centenary of our friendship between the United States and Ethiopia we were too busy - and had insufficient vision - to listen to a poor people's cry for help. Though the greatest, and most technologically advanced, power in the world left them in the lurch".

Annoyed by the attitude of the Italian and American leaders, an Ethiopian-American  wrote a letter to President Bush and a few senators and congressmen to help. Unfortunately no one responded. He wrote an e-mail to Professor Pankhurst informing him that he would continue to help while updating him with the details. The Ethiopian-American then sent the following email to the Italian Embassy in Ethiopia on March 7, 2004.

I recently read on the Net about the difficulty of returning the Axum obelisk from Rome to Ethiopia because of lack of Italian funds and American airplanes. If these are the only issues holding up the return of the obelisk to Ethiopia, is it not possible to cut the pieces to smaller parts and flow them back in smaller airplanes? If this is a viable option, it may be possible to raise the money on the Net.I am thus writing this e-mail to get your input before I set up an Internet site to raise the money on the WWW to cover the cost. I would also appreciate it if you let me know how much this heritage move would cost and where to send the money. [8]

It did not take long for the Italians to figure out where the Ethiopian-American was going and a secretary at the embassy responded by writing that the Italian government has decided to pay for the transportation and he is thus advised to raise money to feed the starving Ethiopians instead of using it to carry pieces of stones. This letter was followed up by a conciliatory one from the Ambassador assuring the Ethiopian-American that preparation for the return of the obelisk would soon start.    

The Ethiopian-American then forwarded the e-mails to Professor Pankhurst who was glad and also suggested that we back off as he has always believed that the Italians would ultimately give in. Within days things started taking shape and the first of three parts of the obelisk arrived in Aksum on April 20, 2005. This same Ethiopian-American wrote a congratulatory e-mail to Professor Pankhurst when the piece arrived in Ethiopia. The professor published the e-mail from the Ethiopian-American among the numerous he received. [9]

The Ethiopian-American did not go back to this issue as the mission has been accomplished and only a few individuals knew the reason behind the sudden urgency to return the monument. The topic came to life again when it was noticed that a question raised by someone who unanimously wrote about the Aksum obelisk in Wikipedia in 2008 about the identity of the Ethiopian-American was never answered.

Another reason for the delay in returning the stela from Italy to Ethiopia in 2004 was because of Italy's claim of not having the money to pay for the transportation. [citation needed] Attempt to get help from the United States was unsuccessful as Americans claimed that their planes were tied up in the war in Iraq.[citation needed] Numerous attempts by Professor Richard Pankhurst, who spearheaded the campaign to return the stela, remained unsuccessful until an American-Ethiopian[who?] threatened the Italian government with the option of raising the money on the Net.[citation needed] [10], [11]

The question remained unanswered until 2012 because the Ethiopian-American and those familiar with the facts did not see the Wikipedia question and the monument was resurrected in its original home and unveiled on 4 September 2008.[12],[13] This Ethiopian-American [14] happens to be Dr. Aberra Molla (ዶ/ር ኣበራ ሞላ) of Colorado. The doctor is a famous scientist whose research turned out to be a panacea for immune deficiency of neonatal animals such as calves and is responsible for saving billions of dollars every year. [15] In a different field, Dr. Aberra computerized Ethiopic in the 1980's and revolutionized the Geez script, the ancient Ethiopian alphabet that has been in use for millennia. [16] More recently, he invented a method of rendering the more than 564 Ethiopic glyphs on computers utilizing at most two keystrokes each and made it available on the internet so that Ethiopic users type in Amharic for free. [17] 

This paper is to thank Professor Pankhurst and those involved while reporting the work of one Ethiopian-American for historical reasons and to give answers long overdue. Without the threat from Dr. Aberra the Italian governments would have continued to frustrate the good peoples of the world for decades, for a job that cost them only ten million dollars. Let us hope the Popes of the Roman Catholic Church, who so far lacked the vision to do the right Christian thing, would wake up after seven decades and say a few good words that do not cost them anything.                                                                           


[1] http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/vatican-apology-for-ethiopian-holocaust.html

[2] http://www.blackpast.org/?q=perspectives/battle-adwa-adowa-1896

[3] http://www.ethiopiaonline.net/obelisk/herald/return.html

[4] http://www.ethiopiaonline.net/obelisk/

[5] http://www.ethiopiaonline.net/obelisk/tribune/04-07-97.html

[6] http://www.ethiopic.com/heritage/money.htm

[፩] ከጦቢያ የካቲት 25 ቀን 1996

[7] http://www.ethiopic.com/heritage/ambassador.htm

[8] http://www.ethiopic.com/heritage/aksum.htm

[9] http://www.ethiopic.com/heritage/obelisk_email.htm

[10] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obelisk_of_Axum

[11 http://www.saylor.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Obelisk-of-Axum.pdf

[12] http://whc.unesco.org/en/news/456

[13] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7597589.stm

[14] http://www.ethiopic.com/heritage/obelisk_email.htm

[15] http://www.bionity.com/en/encyclopedia/List_of_veterinarians.html

[16] http://www.ethiopic.com/Dr._Aberra_Molla_Ethiopic.htm

[17] http://freetyping.geezedit.com













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