By Abiy Hailu
At different times, Ethiopia has lost numerous ancient cultural heritages and treasures because of looting and plundering. Though there have been initiatives now and then to facilitate the return of these stolen heritages, the outcomes have not been pleasing.
In various western museums, it is common to find ancient Ethiopian manuscripts, religious objects and instruments, archeological remains and the likes that represent nation’s long aged history.
On the other hand, the looting and smuggling of these precious cultural heritages are still prevalent inside the country. On Tuesday, the Federal Police has confiscated 100 codices [manuscripts] from three individuals and given the custody to the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritages (ARCCH).
Abera Anjulo is a Cultural Heritage Inspection and Standardization Senior Expert at ARCCH. He tells The Ethiopian Herald that mostly moveable heritages in religious institutions are vulnerable to illegal trafficking.
The most notable incidents that led to the looting of the cultural heritages are the 1868 British expedition to and the 1935 Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Since then, the looting of heritages has been intensified, he adds.
Following the seizure of Maqdala during the 1968 expedition, Emperor Tewodros II committed suicide and the British troops seized whatever treasures they could found. The nearby church of Madhane Alam, (the Saviour of the World), was also sorrowfully looted.
Hailemelekote Agizewe, Senior Heritage Conservator at the Authority says the Emperor had collected most of Ethiopian heritages in a library. “The heritages looted during the expedition include crowns, manuscripts, processional crosses, ecclesiastical objects and Tabots (replica of the Arch of the Covenant), national archives and the likes,” he says.
The British took the looted heritages to the port with 15 elephants and almost 200 mules and carried them home. And the sad thing according to Hailemelekote was that, “while transporting the treasures, the British troops dropped portion of them in to the flood around Eritrea in order to reduce the burden and carry on through the heavy rain.”
Tewodros’s successor, Emperor Yohannes IV, who was saddened by the loss of the treasures, requested Queen Victoria through a letter for the return of two items, a manuscript and an icon.
“Today, international agreements and conventions the country signed make it difficult to request the return of treasures looted prior 1950’s,” says Abera.
But there is legal loophole for the Maqdala treasures to return home as it differs to other restitution cases. This is because; it is acknowledged that the treasures were simply stolen.
He also states that the effort to return the heritages should not be left to the authority alone as it also requires diplomatic engagements.
Most notably, Association for the Return of the Maqdala Ethiopian Treasures (AFROMET), established by the initiative of Richard Pankhurst has been campaigning and lobbying for the return of the heritages since 1999.
The British Government also returned some of the looted items, one of Tewodros’ two crowns in 1924, the royal cap and seal in 1965. Ethiopia also succeeded in its struggle to return the Axum Obelisk, which was stolen during the time of Italian invasion.
Ethiopian treasures were also stolen at different times. “For instance, in the 17th century, James Bruce stole the most mysterious biblical Book of Enoch. Besides, those who came for diplomatic mission, religious affairs and trade have also smuggled out Ethiopian treasures at different times,” Halemelekote adds.
While the government is striving to develop the country’s tourism sector as means to diversify the basis of the economy, the return of its antiquities is crucial. These treasures will attract the stream of tourists. “The second GTP, we are working to facilitate the return of 20 heritages to Ethiopia though none have materialized so far” says Abera.
In fact according to the 2004 report of the UK’s newspaper, The Independent, the Maqdala collections that are scattered in the UK alone are believed to be worth three billion USD.
In addition, the manuscripts hold very valuable knowledge that these days; Ethiopian scholars are obliged to make payments to access Geeze manuscripts found in Germany.
While some hesitate to return the heritages by claiming they could not be properly preserved in Ethiopia, the nation’s history shows that despite the long history of war, every Ethiopian took personal responsibility for the safety of cultural and historical heritages.
The other factor that necessitates the return of the heritages to Ethiopia is the fact that, for instance the Tabots are religious objects that are meaningless outside a church.
In addition, the heritages are central for the youth to feel a sense of pride in their country and hence it is important to catalogue and register Ethiopian heritages both home and abroad.
“We have prepared a national scientific heritages registration manual format,” Abera says adding “we are also preparing national data base for cultural heritages”.
ARCCH was established by proclamation number 1992/209. According to the proclamation, individuals who engage in illegal smuggling of cultural heritages will face six to 20 years jail sentence. However, because of lack of awareness about the value of heritages, the proclamation has not been properly enforced. Hence, it is vital to improve the awareness of those in the judiciary about the national value of heritages,” Abera emphasizes.