Ethiopians Ponder Disrupting Their Present to Reclaim Past

The final piece of the Aksum obelisk was unloaded in April after the stele's return from Italy, where it was taken in 1937 by the forces of Benito Mussolini. In researching a site for the obelisk, archaeologists found a network of tombs.
The final piece of the Aksum obelisk was unloaded in April after the stele's return from Italy, where it was taken in 1937 by the forces of Benito Mussolini. In researching a site for the obelisk, archaeologists found a network of tombs. (By Boris Heger -- Associated Press)

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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 15, 2005

AKSUM, Ethiopia -- Ato Gebrmedihin, who estimates his age at about 90, remembers when Italy's invading army in 1937 looted this ancient city's 1,700-year-old, intricately carved obelisk, on the orders of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who wanted to mark his brief occupation of Ethiopia.

"Their van kept breaking down as they tried to rush to the airport with our heavy monument," the gray-bearded Gebrmedihin recalled with a chuckle. "But they eventually fixed the truck. Then they took our stele away."

Earlier this year, the 180-ton, 80-foot granite obelisk -- a tombstone and monument to ancient rulers -- was returned from a square in central Rome and flown in three parts to this northern town. A national holiday was proclaimed.

"We danced in the streets and threw coins," Gebrmedihin said.

It was a triumphant moment, a belated boost to historical pride on a continent where antiquities were often plundered by colonial powers. But today, the dismembered obelisk still waits in two metal shacks, covered with blankets and a tarp, while residents debate how much of the present they are willing to disturb in order to recover Ethiopia's distant past.

While investigating a proposed site to erect the obelisk, archaeologists using high-tech imaging equipment discovered a major network of underground royal tombs. The discovery of more ancient artifacts has launched renewed interest in Aksum, a powerful kingdom that ruled the Horn of Africa from the 1st to the 6th century A.D. and was one of the four great civilizations at that time, alongside Rome, China and Persia.

But the historical finds have led to a confrontation with modern community concerns. In recent weeks, community meetings have been held in which residents were asked whether they would agree to vacate their property so historians could dig under their huts and through their farms.

Ethiopia, one of the world's poorest and least developed nations, is believed to contain some of civilization's oldest archaeological troves under its rocky soil. Experts estimate that less than 7 percent of these artifacts have been found, meaning that Ethiopia could be on the brink of the same kind of major archaeological discoveries that began in late 19th-century Greece or 1920s Egypt.

"Aksum is one of the least known civilizations in the world," said Fasil Giorghis, an Ethiopian architect and leader of a team of archaeologists and historians who are working in Aksum, as he hunched over reams of drawings in his office. "There are layers and layers of buildings and history here. There is major work to be done here. It's an exciting thing for our country."

In 1980, Aksum was proclaimed a world heritage site by UNESCO, which called it "one of the last great civilizations of antiquity to be revealed to modern knowledge."

Aksum's wealth and architectural achievements were recorded in Greek and Arab literature of that era. Aksum is also widely believed to have been one of the first places in the world to adopt Christianity after the Middle East and is an important site of pilgrimages in the Christian world, according to Giorghis and other experts.

But in recent decades, poor farmers here have been more likely than archaeologists to find ancient artifacts.


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