Ethiopian obelisk taken by Italy returns home under watchful eye of UN
One of Ethiopia’s most iconic monuments, the celebrated obelisk of Aksum, has finally returned home 68 years after Italian soldiers carted it off to Rome during Mussolini’s invasion, its re-installation eased by United Nations experts who in the process discovered more archaeological treasures under a parking lot.
The 1,700-year-old, 24.6 metre-high, 160-ton funeral stele, which has become a symbol of the Ethiopian people’s identity, was cut into three sections to facilitate its transportation by air, and the last segment arrived yesterday in Aksum, a UN World Heritage site near Ethiopia’s northern border with Eritrea.
At the request of the Ethiopian and Italian Governments, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) drew up re-installation plans, and in the process the archaeologists it sent uncovered vestiges of a royal necropolis used by several dynasties before the Christian era.
The team of experts, headed by archaeologist Rodolfo Fattovich, an expert on Aksum at the Instituto Universitario Orientale of Naples, Italy, conducted a “non-invasive archaeological prospection” of the site.
“Underground chambers and arcades have been found in the vicinity of the original location of the obelisk,” said Elizabeth Wangari of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre and Jim Williams, of the agency’s Culture Sector, who took part in the mission. “Geo-radar and electrotomographic prospection, the most advanced technologies for underground observation, revealed the existence of several vast funerary chambers under the site’s parking ground which was built in 1963.”
UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura said the eventual opening of the new tombs to the public would be an additional asset for the site, which by boosting cultural tourism could contribute to Ethiopia’s economic development.
The Aksum archaeological site consists of three parts containing 176 stelae: the Northern Site, the Gudit Stelae Field named after the Jewish Queen who took power in the 10th century, and the central area where the stele, now known as the Aksum Obelisk, used to stand.