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Restoring Ethiopia's great obelisk

The scaffolding next to the existing obelisk

By Elizabeth Blunt
BBC News, Axum, Ethiopia

The slender stone columns which mark the tombs of ancient kings and nobles still stand in a green field at the edge of the modern town of Axum.

But these days the site is dominated by a huge tower of scaffolding, topped by a yellow mobile crane, which dwarfs King Ezana's obelisk, the one royal monument still standing.

They were imagining the skyscrapers of the future
Fisseha Zibelo, ministry of culture

Inside the scaffolding lies part of the Axum Obelisk, looted by Italian troops in 1937 during their brief occupation of Abyssinia.

Italy returned the 1,700-year-old monument in 2005, after decades of negotiations between the two countries.

The obelisk, which weighs more than 150 tonnes, was taken back to Ethiopia in three pieces. Now it is being restored and resurrected back in its original home.

Unique

At the moment an ugly fence of corrugated iron screens off the working area.

But if you get inside, you can see the first chunk of the Rome obelisk already in place, in the centre of the scaffolding tower.

It has been firmly cemented into its new foundations, exactly where it stood in antiquity.

The remains of the old foundations lie nearby - huge blocks of stone cut to fit the base of the monument.

A broken obelisk
The Great Obelisk - the largest of all - still lies in the area

When the work is done they will be placed alongside so visitors can see the how things were done before the days of cranes and concrete.

The base of the column is a huge block of grey granite, carved - as if it was the ground floor of a tall building - with the unmistakable image of a door, complete with a ring-shaped door handle.

One of the most astonishing things about these monuments is that they appear to mimic the facades of multi-story buildings.

Fisseha Zibelo, from Ethiopia's ministry of culture, says this carving shows the imagination of the monuments' creators.

"We know they had two- and three-storey buildings, because in Axum there are big buildings with more than one storey, " he said, "but here they were imagining the skyscrapers of the future."

The two other sections of the obelisk are still lying nearby on concrete supports.

It is a unique opportunity to get close to them, to see the sharp clarity of the details, nearly 2,000 years after they were first carved.

You can see the window frames of the imaginary building, and the round beam-ends protruding from the walls in characteristic Axumite building style.

Protective collar

The middle section is due to be hoisted into place soon and is almost ready to go.

The work is being done by an Italian firm, Lattanzi. Site supervisor Mauro Cristini describes the whole project as experimental work.

map of Ethiopia

"Nobody anywhere has ever done anything like this."

But he says that although the middle section is massively heavy, it is in good condition, solid apart from a mended break at one corner.

That is not the case with the upper section, which is much more fragile.

The slender peak of the column, with its famous curved top, was already broken, and was struck by lightning in Rome, damaging it still further.

Mr Cristini's workers are painting on a protective coating before fitting it with a strong collar - effectively a handle for the crane to hold onto while raising it into position.

The whole project to raise the obelisk has been quite controversial.

It was lying on the ground when the Italians found it, and had been on the ground for centuries. Some archaeologists think it should have been replaced in that position.

Not only is there the risk of damage to the obelisk itself during the work, but they worry that the new foundations could disturb the complex of underground tombs which lies beneath the monuments, and which has only recently begun to be explored.

The circle is closed now
Mauro Cristini
Site supervisor

And then there is the risk to King Ezana's column, the one carved royal monument which has stood since antiquity, and which is very close to the construction works.

It already leans at a slight angle, and has been braced with steel hawsers to prevent it being damaged by the vibration caused by the heavy equipment.

It is regularly monitored, and Mr Cristini says that although some slight movement has been recorded, it has not been enough to cause concern.

The whole team - Ethiopian and Italian - are impatient to see the obelisk finally in place.

The last section should be placed in position in early August, ready for an official ceremony on the fourth of September, just before the end of Ethiopia's millennium year.

Pride of place

"This monument was made by our ancestors" says Fisseha Zibelo. "It's only in Axum that this kind of monument was made, so for us, it is a matter of pride and mark of our identity."

As for Mr Cristini, he says for him this is a little bit of history.

"The circle is closed now," he says.

"Before it was on the ground, but now the people of Ethiopia will be able to see it on its original site, so everything is going to be even better than before."


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