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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 April, 2005, 16:40 GMT 17:40 UK
Obelisk arrives back in Ethiopia
Ethiopians cheer in Axum
Ethiopians will be celebrating for more than a week
The first section of a 1,700-year old stone obelisk looted by Italy nearly 70 years ago has arrived back in Ethiopia.

The Axum obelisk is regarded as one of Ethiopia's national religious treasures.

An Antonov plane landed on Tuesday with the middle part of the obelisk; the top and bottom should follow within a week.

Italian troops seized the obelisk in 1937 and took it to Rome, where it has remained ever since, despite a 1947 UN agreement to return it to Ethiopia.

The plane carrying the first part of the obelisk appeared over the horizon just before dawn.

A crowd of Ethiopian ministers, priests and other VIPs cheered and clapped as it landed.

AXUM OBELISK
1,700 years old
Weighs 160 tons
24m tall
Looted in 1937
Return costing $7.7m
Due to be re-erected in September
"I am excited, overjoyed and delighted," said Ethiopian Culture Minister Teshome Toga.

"This is a very historical moment for us, we have waited so long to have the obelisk back," he said.

Pealing bells and chanting priests could be heard from a nearby cathedral, reports the AP news agency.

The ornately decorated 24-metre (78ft) obelisk is regarded as an outstanding example of architecture from the ancient city of Axum, itself seen as one of the four great kingdoms of the ancient world.

It stood for years outside the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome, despite an Italian commitment to send it back to Ethiopia.

Celebrations planned

It was eventually dismantled by Italian experts in 2004 in readiness for its journey home.

The operation is costing Italy an estimated 6m euros ($7.7m).

Obelisks in Axum's royal cemetery

But the obelisk's return had been beset by "technical difficulties" and repeatedly postponed.

The most recent delay came just last week, when it was postponed "indefinitely" amid concerns that the airstrip at Axum could not handle the cargo plane.

The 160-ton monument had to be broken into three pieces.

The delay was a disappointment for Ethiopians and the country's government, which had planned a national celebration to mark the return of the obelisk.

Shortly after the obelisk's return, traditional dancers took to the streets of Axum to celebrate.

The obelisk will be re-erected after the rains in September.

Many Ethiopians see the obelisk as a vital national symbol, and the prospect of its return stirs strong emotions.

HAVE YOUR SAY
There is simply no excuse for not returning stolen artefacts
Tarek Alami, Abu Dhabi, UAE

Abebe Alenayehu, 81, watched Italian troops seize the obelisk from Axum, but never expected to be alive to witness its return.

"The memory still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth," he told the Associated Press news agency.

"Every day for the last 67 years I have thought about the obelisk."

Steel bars

Lattanzi, the Italian company responsible for transporting the obelisk to Axum, has described the obelisk as the largest, heaviest object ever transported by air.

Heaters were installed in the plane to protect the monument from freezing air temperatures.

The obelisk was wrapped in steel bars to stabilise it in case of turbulence during the six-hour flight, Lattanzi director Simone Pietero told AP.

In addition, the airstrip at Axum had to be upgraded to handle the vast Antonov-124 aircraft, and radar was installed.





BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Watch the Obelisk being dismantled




SEE ALSO:
Who should own historic artefacts?
19 Apr 05 |  Have Your Say
Deadlock over Axum obelisk
14 Sep 04 |  Africa


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