Mike Aquilina

Obelisk Goes Back to Axum

Wednesday March 12th 2008, 3:17 pm

News from “the birthpace of Christianity in Ethiopia”: a patristic-era Christian monument will be restored.

(ANSA) – Addis Ababa, March 6 – A holy monument returned to Ethiopia after years of foot-dragging is to be re-erected later this year after the final technical wrinkles are ironed out, the Italian ambassador to the East African country said Tuesday.

Raffaele de Lutio told ANSA that a concrete slipway leading up to the obelisk’s site has been completed and the base itself has been reinforced to prevent the monument causing damage to a recently discovered necropolis.

He voiced the hope that the official ceremony will take place ”within the first week of September, just before the Ethiopian New Year which falls on September 11”.

A delegation from the United Nations cultural heritage body UNESCO is expected to arrive ”by Easter” to give the go-ahead, the envoy said. The revered obelisk, looted by Benito Mussolini’s Fascist troops, was flown back and re-assembled amid fanfare at the holy city of Axum almost four years ago.

Ethiopians, who consider themselves descendants of the ancient civilisation, clamoured for it to be put up immediately…

As well as being a Coptic (Egyptian Christian) holy place, Axum is a popular tourist venue littered with some 120 stones like the obelisk, some half-standing but most lying on the ground.

Made of dark basalt, the Axum obelisk is actually a funeral stele – a stone tower that was used to mark graves.

Unlike most surviving steles, which are blank, it is decorated with carved designs of windows and doors and topped with a sort of stone crest.

Axum, which dominated the Horn of Africa from the first to the sixth century AD, was reputed one of the four great powers of the time along with Rome, China and Persia, pouring out ivory, animals, textiles, gold, jewels and spices to Roman, Arabian and Indian markets.

It declined as Arab invaders swept in from the north but retained its prestige as the birthpace of Christianity in Ethiopia.

It also enjoys a mythic aura thanks to a legend that Menelik I, son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, brought the Ark of the Covenant to Axum from Jerusalem, 1,000 years before Christ.

Some believe the Ark – symbol of God’s covenant with the Jews – is still hidden there in a small church built in 1965 by Haile Selassie, last Emperor of Ethiopia and a claimed descendant of Solomon.