Paul Johnson

Trundling Musso’s stolen obelisk back to its African home

Trundling Musso’s stolen obelisk back to its African home

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Not many people know much, or indeed anything, about the civilisation of Aksum. A pity: it is one of the jewels in Africa’s crown and absolutely genuine too, unlike most of the phoney cultures made a fuss of during the decolonisation years. Aksum is a town about 400 miles north of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Between the 1st and the 8th centuries ad it enjoyed great wealth derived from spices, gold, ivory, emeralds and selling slaves (mark the last point: no civilisation is innocent). Standing at the crossroads of the caravan routes between the basin of the Nile and the Red Sea, it enjoyed contact with imperial Rome and adopted some of its ideas.

The Roman emperors had admired the giant obelisks hewn by the craftsmen of the pharaohs from the living rock, and shipped several of them, with enormous difficulty, to Rome to adorn their squares. The kings of Aksum erected obelisks or stelae to mark their reigns, especially during the 3rd and 4th centuries, when the kingdom reached its apogee. About 200 of them survive. Six are of great size and interest, for they have carved on them representations of multistorey buildings. One, about 70 feet high, is still on its original site, upright. Four, including one originally well over 100 feet, have fallen down and bits lie scattered about, delightful for those who love ruins. The last and finest, made of basalt and about 90 feet high, was seized by Mussolini in 1937 as part of the booty of his conquest of Ethiopia and in revenge for the destruction of the Italian expeditionary force at Adowa by the forces of Menelik II, Negus of Ethiopia, in 1896. Musso, determined to recreate the Roman empire in flamboyance as well as conquest, had the obelisk pulled down and dismantled, piled on trucks and taken to the port of Massawa on the Red Sea, along 300 miles of roads specially constructed by Italian army engineers. Thence it was shipped to Rome through the Suez Canal — with the blessing of Neville Chamberlain’s government — and re-erected in the middle of the Piazza di Porta Capena. There it remained, in the middle of raging traffic, to the indifference of most Romans but to the fury of the Ethiopians, for 68 years.

When the British ousted the Italians from Ethiopia and restored the tragic emperor, Haile Selassie, to his throne, he immediately set up an agitation to get his obelisk back, believing it to be the work of his distinguished predecessor, the King Ezana, a contemporary of Constantine the Great — indeed often called ‘the Constantine of Ethiopia’. In 1947, the Negus (or ‘King of Kings’) negotiated a treaty with the Italian government, under the mediation of Unesco, whereby the Italians agreed to restore the obelisk within 18 months. But nothing happened. Periodically, more agreements were reached, but the Italians always found excuses for delaying restitution — the overthrow and murder of Haile Selassie, the horrors of the Mengistu regime, its eventual collapse, wars and civil wars in the region, and so on. Some senior Italian figures in government flatly refused to countenance restoration. In 2001, after half a century of broken agreements, arguments and lying, the Italian undersecretary of state for culture, Vittorio Sgarbi, flatly declared ‘the obelisk is now a naturalised citizen of Italy and Rome, and the Ethiopians should thank their lucky stars that they have a showcase in the Eternal City which holds the riches of the Western world’. That was not calculated to calm Ethiopian tempers. Happily, nature — or providence, or God (Pope John Paul II had declared himself in favour of restoration) — intervened.

On the night of 28 May 2002 a tropical storm in Rome damaged the top of the obelisk and weakened its foundations to the point where the Berlusconi government finally decided to get rid of it. The project, no easy or simple one, was put in the charge of Professor Giorgio Croci, who has a good deal of experience with ancient monuments, including the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Colosseum and the damaged chapel at Assisi. In November 2003 the obelisk was sliced into three parts and trundled off to a barracks near the Rome airport of Ciampino, where it has been ever since. A giant Russian transport aircraft, an Antonov, has now been hired to put the bits in its belly, and the Ethiopians have lengthened the runway at Aksum to receive it. The Italians are paying for everything — about £8 million. The airlift is planned for May, but heavy rains in East Africa may delay the homecoming further.

I owe many of these details to an illuminating article in Le Monde. The French are taking a close interest in the affair because they see it as a useful precedent for forcing the British to disgorge the Elgin Marbles from their magnificent setting in the British Museum and return them to the Acropolis. I once heard a Frenchman say that the retention of these works in London ‘with its fogs and indifference’ was an outrage against civilisation. I pointed out that ‘London particulars’ no longer occurred and that the Elgin displays attracted a vast number of visitors, to which he responded with a characteristic Gallic shrug. I then asked, ‘If it is wrong for the Elgin Marbles to be in London, why is it right to keep the Winged Victory in the Louvre?’ He said that Paris occupied a special place in the hearts of those who wished to acquire knowledge of European culture, from its origins in Greece and Rome to the present, and that the Louvre was the cynosure of such people.

Oddly enough this was exactly the same line of argument that Bonaparte and his culture boss, Vivant Denon, used in the early years of the 19th century to justify the looting of Europe’s art treasures. It was the biggest such operation in history by far (by contrast the Nazi bosses, like Goering, were mere pickpockets). Convents, churches, monasteries, palaces and private houses were stripped of their treasures, which were carefully selected by Paris art dealers. The loot, chiefly from Italy and central Europe, was loaded on to heavily guarded baggage-trains which jolted over the Alps and the Jura, and converged on Paris, which had been specially cleaned up and designed as the world capital of civilisation. Some of the carts carrying antiquities were labelled: ‘Greece ceded them, Rome lost them, their destiny was changed twice but it will not change again.’

The biggest single recipient was the Louvre, though French provincial museums got plenty too. But things did ‘change again’ in 1815. The biggest victim of theft had been the Church, and the great sculptor Canova was sent to Paris by the Pope to see what could be recovered. He found a staunch ally in the Duke of Wellington, who hated looting in any form. The Louvre was forced to disgorge not only old masters but, for instance, the four bronze horses stolen from St Mark’s in Venice. The Grenadier Guards stood by with fixed bayonets to stop Denon whipping up a mob of protesters. So the treasures returned — or some of them. It proved too complicated to establish ownership of many works of art which were scattered over the French provinces, and they remain there. But if the French wish to re-open this particular can of worms, they are welcome. There are probably more stolen works of art in France than anywhere else in the world. At least the Elgin Marbles were paid for, in good English gold sovereigns.