The obelisk that was looted by Mussolini from the ancient Ethiopian Aksum stood in Rome for 68 years.
Thursday, 07 July 2005 00:00
Recent celebrations in Ethiopia no doubt aroused the envy of the Greeks, who have been campaigning fruitlessly for years to convince the British government to return the Elgin marbles. The altogether luckier Ethiopians have, in contrast, finally persuaded the Italians to return a 1,700-year-old stone obelisk looted by Mussolini nearly 70 years ago during the fascist occupation of Ethiopia (BBC News). The obelisk is the finest of more than 100 stone monoliths which stood in Aksum (Axum), capital city of the ancient Aksumite kingdom that flourished in northern Ethiopia between 100-600 CE and which, according to legend, was where Menelik I, son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, brought the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem. As yet, however, few know much about this ancient African civilization, and its role in the development of trade, arts, and religion in the centuries that also witnessed the spread of the Roman Empire, the birth of Christianity, and the rise of Islam (Munro-Hay).
The city of Aksum is located in the northern highlands of Ethiopia, near the Red Sea. The kingdom, of which it was the centre, was founded by Semitic speaking Aksumites or Habash (Abyssinians) and owed its development to a range of factors. The wider region had long been dominated by the Egyptians and by Nubian kingdoms based in Sudan. The Aksum state rose as its nearest rival, the Sudanese kingdom of Meroë, suffered rapid decline as a result of changing political and economic fortunes in the first centuries CE. Aksum took the place of Meroë and, to a lesser extent, Ptolemaic Egypt in international trade networks.
Although located more remotely and without access to either the fertility or easy transport of the Nile that was enjoyed by Egypt and Nubia, the Ethiopian kingdom had distinct advantages. It was closer to the Red Sea and an Arabian sphere of influence that had long been significant in trade in the region, and most importantly, it was sufficiently remote that it did not attract the hostile attention of the Roman or Persian superpowers. As a result, it was never conquered or suffered punitive expeditions that so frequently beset its neighbors and was, thus, left free to develop a unique culture that nurtured some key innovations of the period (Munro-Hay).
The Aksumites developed a sophisticated civilization that contributed a range of innovations in the fields of architecture and ceramics. It developed the Ge`ez or Ethiopic script, which allowed them to leave a legacy of written material and was sufficiently Hellenized for its rulers to also speak Greek. It produced a coinage bearing legends in both Greek and Ge`ez, which name the successive kings of Aksum. From coinage and other inscriptions, a chronology of the period can be reconstructed, while oral histories also tell us something of the political structure of the Aksum state.
The title Negusa Nagast (King of Kings), first established by Aksumite and successive Ethiopian rulers, was used until the death of the late emperor Haile Selassie. In the Aksumite state, other kings and chiefs across Ethiopia were subordinated to the King of Kings, but retained roles as administrators within the new system. The Aksumites had a diverse and difficult territory to subdue, which they seemed to achieve, acquiring dominance over the Red Sea straits and over the sea to what are now the Yemeni and Saudi Arabian coastlands, and beyond.
Perhaps the most spectacular achievements of the Aksumite kingdom were the construction of the great monoliths, of which the example taken by the Italians was the finest. Over 100 such monoliths once stood in Aksum. Carved from hard granite-like rock, the obelisks were erected as funerary markers, or stelae, for deceased members of the aristocracy. The seven largest and most intricately carved obelisks were erected by Ezana, the King of Aksum who converted to Christianity in 325 CE. The carvings depict windows and doors to create the illusion that the obelisks were, in fact, buildings. Funded by trade in such luxuries as turtle shells, ivory, obsidian, rhino horns, emeralds, cattle, and gold, the obelisks are testament to the skill of the Aksumite quarrymen, engineers, and stone carvers, as well as to the power of their rulers. The prosperity and reputation of Aksum was such that, by the third century CE, the Persian philosopher Mani described it as one of the four greatest kingdoms in the world, along with Rome, China, and Persia.
Aksum was strategically located near the Red Sea and maintained close trade relations with Arabia.
As with so many ancient civilizations, after a heyday lasting several centuries, Aksum became increasingly unable to maintain its position. During the 6th and 7th centuries, Persia successfully invaded the Yemen, Syria, and Egypt, disrupting Aksum’s trade routes. Arab conquests from the mid 7th century onwards, further transformed the old economic system, partly by blocking the Red Sea route from Adulis to the Roman world, and so Aksum’s prosperity came to an end. Christian Ethiopia was increasingly isolated in a wider Islamic region and it no longer had the allies it needed to maintain its dominance. By 630 CE, Aksum seems to have been abandoned as the political centre of the kingdom, although it has maintained its role as a religious centre and occasional coronation place for later dynasties until the present day.
Despite losing its political preeminence, the civilization of Aksum bequeathed to subsequent Ethiopian kingdoms several important legacies. The first was an independence that managed to preserve some of the characteristics of an ancient way of life. The second was a deep-rooted Christian faith and culture, unique to Ethiopia. The Church continued to sponsor religious arts and culture in Ethiopia after the decline of the Aksumite state, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church remains Monophysite to the present day. Aksum also gained a reputation for religious tolerance. Ella Saham, an Ethiopian ruler of late Aksumite times, gave protection and shelter to the early followers of the Prophet Muhammad, which earned Aksum a place of respect among Muslims even when religious conflicts in the region continued.
More than 98% of what is left of Aksum has yet to be excavated.
Perhaps the persistence of such legends more credibly reflects the importance of the wider region in the development of world religions. Ethiopian traditions can only claim the Solomon and Sheba story as their own because the Old Testament strongly indicates that the land of Ophir, from where Sheba came, was somewhere in Africa. Although not directly related to the later Aksum civilization, nonetheless, the confusion around Old Testament and more recent Christian traditions indicate the deep-seated nature of the range of monotheistic as well as pagan influences in the wider region of which Ethiopia was a part. It is precisely these influences, as they emerged, flourished, declined and persisted over time, that gave Aksum its prominence in the ancient world, and they leave us with a rich cultural legacy to be explored and enjoyed