Italy plays politics with Ethiopian obelisk

Italy has once again retreated from a repeated pledge to return to Ethiopia a third-century 75-foot obelisk from the ancient city of Axum which fascist dictator Benito Mussolini brought to Rome as a prize of conquest after his invasion and occupation of Ethiopia in 1936. Italy initially pledged to return the obelisk in 1947, but never acted to fulfill the pledge. Last year, during a state visit by Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a date was finally set–but has been repeatedly put off by Italy, citing technical difficulties. Most recently, on April 13, Italy cancelled a scheduled flight to deliver the first section of the obelisk, with the Italian Culture Ministry citing the lack of radar to ensure a safe landing of the cargo plane at Axum’s airport .

The delays have been met with shock and anger in Ethiopia. Protested Richard Pankhurst, historian at Addis Ababa University :

"The people are desolate. The children had all been rehearsing their celebration, and the news that it was not going to be carried out according to plan has shocked the people of Axum. The Axum obelisk goes back to the very beginning of Ethiopian history, and it is shocking that Italy has failed to honor its obligations for so long… Each year, we have had excuse after excuse; that the obelisk is too heavy, that the Ethiopians cannot look after it, that it is better in Italy, and so forth." (VOA, April 12)

We speculate that political considerations rather than technical ones may be behind the delays. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition is on the brink of collapse, and he is facing a popular backlash over Italy’s emboilment in the Iraq adventure, as noted in our last blog post. The current political crisis in Italy is also being aggressively exploited by the overtly Mussolini-nostalgist ultra-right–placing more pressure on Berlusconi not to surrender a symbol of past military glories to a bunch of upstart Africans.

A particular historical irony which may also offend Italian sensibilities is that Axum was actually an officially Christian city before Rome–a fact noted by New Advent’s online Catholic Encylopedia.