Obelisk of Axum

The Obelisk of Axum is a 1700-year-old, 24-meters (78-foot) tall granite obelisk, weighing 160 tonnes. It is decorated with two false doors at the base, and decorations resembling windows on all sides. The obelisk ends in a semicircular top part, which used to be enclosed by metal frames.


The obelisk was carved and erected in the town of Axum (in modern-day Ethiopia) during the 4th century by subjects of the Kingdom of Aksum, an ancient Ethiopian civilization. Later, it collapsed down, breaking into three parts, probably after an earthquake (Axum in located in a seismical zone). In these conditions, it was found by Italians soldiers at the end of 1935, after the Italian conquest of Ethiopia. In 1937, it was looted as prey of war and moved to Rome by the fascist regime, who want to commemorate the conquest of Ethiopia and the birth of the ephemeral "new Roman empire" (see Italian Empire), who actually lasted for only 6 years (5 May 1936 marshal Badoglio enter in Addis Ababa, 5 May 1941 Emperor Haile Selassie reenter in Addis Ababa). The steel was cut into six sections and dragged by hundreds of Italian and Eritrean soldiers (for more than two months) to the port of Massawa. It arrived via ship to Naples (on a boat called Adua), on March 27 1937. Then it was transported to Rome, where it was reassembled and placed on October 28 1937 in Porta Capena square, commemorating the 15th anniversary of the March on Rome, in front of the Ministry for Italian Africa (later the headquarters of the United Nations's Food and Agriculture Organization) and the Circus Maximus. These operations were coordinated by Ugo Monneret de Villard. Together with the obelisk of Axum, also arrived in Italy the Lion of Judah, symbol of the Ethiopian monarchy, which was exposed in front of Termini railway station. In a 1947 UN agreement, Italy agreed to return the obelisk to Ethiopia, obviously with the other prey of war, the Lion of Judah. Instead of the latter, which was actually returned in 1947, little action was taken to return the obelisk for more than 50 years, also in consequence of the considerable technical difficulties related to such a transport.

After years of pressure, the Italian government agreed, in April 1997, to its return. The first steps in dismantling it were taken in November 2003, with the intent to ship the obelisk back to Ethiopia in March 2004. However, the repatriation project encountered a series of obstacles: the runway at Axum Airport was considered too short for a cargo plane carrying even one of the thirds into which the obelisk had been cut; the roads and bridges between Addis Ababa and Axum were thought to be not up to the task of road transport; and access through the nearby Eritrean port of Massawa – which was how the obelisk originally left Africa – was impossible due to the strained state of relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Another reason for the delay in returning the obelisk from Italy to Ethiopia in 2004 was because of Italy's claim of not having the money to pay for the transportation. Attempt to get help from the United States was unsuccessful as Americans claimed that their planes were tied up in the war in Iraq. Numerous attempts by Professor Richard Pankhurst, who spearheaded the campaign to return the obelisk, remained unsuccessful until an American-Ethiopian threatened the Italian government with the option of raising the money on the Net.

The runway at Axum airport was then upgraded especially to facilitate the return of the obelisk. The dismantled obelisk remained sitting in a warehouse near Rome's Leonardo Da Vinci International Airport, until 19 April 2005 when the middle piece was repatriated by use of an Antonov An-124, amidst much local celebration. The second piece was returned on 22 April 2005, with the final piece returned on 25 April 2005. The obelisk remained in storage while Ethiopia decided how to reconstruct it without disturbing other ancient treasures still in the area. Observations at the site in Axum in March 2007 revealed that the foundation has been poured for the re-erection of the obelisk near King Ezana's Stele. Reassemby began in June 2008 and the monument was resurrected in its original home and unveiled on 4 September 2008.

Several other similar obelisks exist in Ethiopia and Eritrea, such as the Hawulti in Metera. Like the Obelisk of Axum, the other obelisks have a rectangular base with a false door carved on one side.

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