Pankhurst’s Memories of the Aksum Obelisk Issue

In the following article (part three of a four-part series on Capital, a business newspaper in Ethiopia), Professor Richard Pankhurst (pictured above with model of the Axum obelisk in his office in Addis Ababa), a member of the "Ethiopian Axum Obelisk Return Committee", describes "the events, personalities and collective effort behind the successful repatriation of the Obelisk from Italy."

Personal Memories of the Aksum Obelisk Issue (Capital Ethiopia)

By Richard Pankhurst

Part Three

Saturday, August 2, 2008

We saw in the last article how the original Aksum Obelisk Committee, an entirely private body composed of less than a dozen individuals, albeit people of good will, helped to launch a movement for the return of the Aksum obelisk which Mussolini had looted from Ethiopia a generation or so earlier: Please read on:

The Obelisk Return movement at this time was not without a useful international dimension. Having formerly been Director of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies several decades earlier I was on good personal terms with most of the international scholars of Ethiopian affairs, many of whom, when approached, expressed support for our campaign. This enabled me to issue a succession of statements to the essentially sympathetic press – announcing that such and such Ethiopianist was demanding the Obelisk’s repatriation. This helped to keep the issue virtually every week in the public eye.

Such supporters, who rallied to the cause, included Professor Sven Rubenson from Sweden, Professor Angelo Del Boca from Italy, Professors Richard Greenfield, Christopher Clapham and Frederick Halliday from Britain, Professors Donald Crummey, Frederick Gamst, Pascal Imperato, and Alberto Sbacchi from the United States, Maria Rait and Yuri Kobischanov from Russia, Hagai Erlich from Israel, Viraj Gubta from India, Katsuyoshi Fakui from Japan – and many, many others. Support was likewise announced from not a few prominent writers, among them Wilfred Thesiger, Thomas Pakenham, David Buxton, Graham Hancock, and Germaine Greer, as well as Rita Marley, widow of Bob Marley, and Lutz Becker, producer of the remarkable historical film The Lion of Judah, as well as the two leading British historians of modern Italy: William Deakin and Denis Mack Smith. Mrs Winthrop Boswell, an American scholar who had some years earlier used the IES library to study ancient Ethiopian-Irish relations, most generously supplied us with much appreciated “Return Our Obelisk” car stickers. They bore a representation of an Aksum obelisk as reproduced by the Scottsih traveller James Bruce in 1790.

The movement also rallied extensive support among the Ethiopian Diaspora, most notably from Ato Samuel Ferenje in Canada, Dr. Asfawossen Asrate in Germany, and Ato Zaudie Haile Mariam in Sweden, as well as Professors Achamele Debele, Ashenafe Kebede, Ephraim Isaac, Getachew Haile, Syum Gabre Egziabher, and Ato Kassahun Chekole, all in the United States. Support was also received from prominent Americans of Italian decent, among them our friend Professor Pascal Imperato. Many articles on the Obelisk likewise appeared in the Italian media, many supportive ones from the heroic pen of Professor Angelo Del Boca. Other writings on the obelisk, by the present writer and others, also appeared in the Ethiopian Diaspora press, the Ethiopian Review, the Ethiopian Register and others. As well as, in Ethiopia itself, in Addis Tribune and other papers.

The Obelisk Return Movement gained further impetus once again as a result of an Anniversary – this time the Centenary of the Battle of Adwa of 1896. In the lead-up to that anniversary Professor Andreas Eshete, Chairman of the Ethiopian Centenary Committee, and an old family friend, seized the occasion to appeal to the Italian Government, on Ethiopian TV, for the monument’s restitution – and was joined by Fitawrari Amede Lemma and several other members of the Obelisk Return Committee. A few days later the Ethiopian Parliament held a Public Hearing on the Obelisk, the first such hearing in its history, at which several of us urged the case for repatriation. We were joined in this by Professor Marco Vigoni, a teacher at Addis Ababa’s Italian School.

Then, on 8 February 1996, the Parliament voted unanimously – to demand the Obelisk’s return – just as its predecessor, the Emperor’s Parliament, had done three decades earlier.

The cause of the Obelisk’s restitution, first voiced by a few isolated individuals in different parts of the globe, had thus at last become official Ethiopian Government policy; and a matter to be discussed at an inter-governmental level – but that is another story.

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3 Responses to “Pankhurst’s Memories of the Aksum Obelisk Issue”


  1. 1 Frederick C Gamst Oct 15th, 2008 at 2:32 pm

    All the world is indebted to Prof. Richard Pankhurst for his successful leadership in having returned and restored to Ethiopia, the Great Aksumite Steele, looted by the Italian Fascists during an early Axis war of aggression. This monumental return is a highlight of Pankhurst’s dedicated service to and extensive scholarship regarding the peoples and civilization of Ethiopia. Bravo, Richard.

    /Fred Gamst/

  2. 2 sahlem Belai Nov 8th, 2008 at 3:08 am

    My father Belai Giday, who wrote the book Axumite kingdom / civilization of Ethiopia and several other books regarding history of Ethiopia was also very passionate about the return of the Axum oblisk. He loved his country and in his actions, words, and dedications to the books he wrote he taught me to also love Ethiopia and her amazing history. I would like to have seen his name mentioned in this article, he was there!…..oh well, I guess silent heros are never recognized. A few years ago before he sudenly passed, I remember talking to him about the return of the oblisk. I am honered to have had that conversation, I am honered to have known a man who beleived in peace,the unity of Ethiopia/ respect of all cultures/humility and true love of country.

  3. 3 sahlem Belai Nov 11th, 2008 at 2:44 am

    Silent hero never recognized.

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