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Thursday, 30 May, 2002, 09:09 GMT 10:09 UK
Storm over Ethiopian obelisk lightning strike
An expert inspects the damage
The damaged has been described as 'considerable'

Ethiopia has blamed the Italian Government for the damage done to an ancient obelisk, which has been at the centre of a dispute between the two countries for six decades.

Ethiopia's Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture said Rome "should be held responsible for the damage to the Axum Obelisk" during a thunderstorm in Rome on Monday night.


It is a shameless attempt by Italy to steal, and illegally retain, a symbol of another country's identity, history and culture

Axum resident
The 24-metre (80-foot) granite monument was looted from the holy city of Axum in northern Ethiopia, when the fascist regime of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini invaded the East African country in 1937, and taken to Italy.

Although Addis Ababa has repeatedly asked for the return of the 3,000-year-old monument and agreements have been signed between Ethiopia and Italy, the Italians have so far failed to fulfil their obligations.

Risk of destruction

On Monday night, several pieces from the top of the Axum Obelisk crashed to the ground during a heavy storm.

Archaeology experts are assessing the damage but Rome Prefect Emilio del Mese, the government's representative in the capital, has described it as "considerable".

Axum obelisk with pieces missing
Large pieces from the obelisk crashed to the ground

In January, Italy's Deputy Minister for Cultural Heritage, Vittorio Sgarbi, said that Italy could not give its consent for a monument which is well-kept and has been restored to be taken to what he called "a war zone" and left there with the risk of being destroyed.

The Ethiopian ministry statement said that "if the Italian Government heeded to the persistent plea since 1947 by the people and government of Ethiopia and again over the last 10 years, for the return of the obelisk, the relic would have been home by now".

Agreement U-turn

Rome initially pledged to return the obelisk in 1948, and made another promise in 1997 after signing a bilateral agreement specifying its return the same year.

In 2000 and 2001, Italy's former deputy foreign minister, Senator Rino Serri, and Foreign Ministry Under-Secretary Alfredo Mantica renewed the commitment to return the monument.

But almost 66 years after it was looted, the obelisk still stands in Rome's Piazza di Porta Capena, near the Coliseum, fronting the office of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).

National identity symbol

The Ethiopian Government said that Italy's excuse for its delay due to technical problems was "unacceptable" and reiterated the demand for "the immediate return of the obelisk to its rightful owner - Ethiopia".

It called on groups and friends of Ethiopia who are lobbying for the return of all Ethiopian historical and cultural monuments found in Europe and other countries, to exert pressure on the Italian Government to return the Axum Obelisk without further delay.

Ordinary Ethiopians see the obelisk as a symbol of their identity and their ancient civilisation and are angered by what one Axumite resident described as a "shameless attempt by Italy to steal, and illegally retain, a symbol of another country's identity, history and culture".

The Axum obelisk has been listed by Unesco as a world heritage site and earlier this year Addis Ababa asked the UN to intervene to ensure Italy returned the obelisk.

See also:

28 May 02 | Europe
10 Jan 02 | Africa
22 Jun 01 | Africa
20 Jul 01 | Africa
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