Any historian determined to write a comprehensive account of the life and times of Ethiopia – and those who have lived there – will have to go back a long, long time.
Well-preserved human fossils like the famous specimen called “Lucy” suggest the region played a critical role in the evolution of the human species. The adoption of a new religion at the suggestion of a bunch of hardy subversives in the 4th century would make this area one of the first in the world to adopt Christianity.
However, this country’s ancient story is not immediately apparent in its bustling capital, Addis Ababa. The city’s skyline is a haphazard jumble of office towers and apartment buildings, standing alongside major construction projects financed by the Chinese.
Still, there is a place in the capital where some of Ethiopia‘s most precious artefacts are kept and the collection rooms at Ethiopia’s National Museum have recently received some important additions.
The museum’s director, Ephraim Amare, took us up to the fourth floor and unlocked a wooden cabinet in the corner.
“There are three items from the Netherlands, 13 items from Britain, it’s a really interesting addition.”
Placed carefully on the shelves, we saw a ceremonial crown, prayer books hand-written in Ge’ez – Ethiopia’s ancient liturgical language, illustrated manuscripts and ornate crosses made from iron.
But the first thing the director’s assistant pulled out was an intricately designed shield which had once used in battle by a feudal lord.
“Wow, what is that?” I said, as the light bounced off the interlocking silver decorations.
“It is a shield,” said Mr Amare.
“Was it used at Magdala?” I asked, inquiring about a battle in 1868 between the forces of Tewodros II, emperor of Abyssinia (precursor of Ethiopia), and an expeditionary force of 13,000 British soldiers.
“Oh yes,” he replied. “Firearms weren’t used (by Tewodros’ men), they had spears and shields, they were the most common (weapons).”
This blood-thirsty confrontation, which would claim the lives of hundreds of men, began as an argument over the activities of a group of missionaries. It concluded five years later with waves of British soldiers, wearing pith helmets and khaki jackets, storming through the walls of his fortress at Magdala.
Facing capture and imprisonment, Tewodros took a pistol from his belt and killed himself in an act that many Ethiopians still regard as a national catastrophe. His body was buried at the local churchyard.
Members of Britain’s expeditionary force took the opportunity to loot and plunder his possessions and thousands of precious artefacts were duly loaded onto the backs of Indian elephants and sent down to the coast for shipping.
Fast forward 153 years and the descendants of the same British soldiers put a small number of these treasures up for sale at a couple of auction houses. Ethiopian diplomats got wind of these auctions and negotiated their return to Addis Ababa.
“Is it disappointing that family members are doing this, trying to sell on stolen goods?” I asked Mr Amare.
“Yes, disappointing, not because a particular family auctioned them – but because they are Ethiopian treasures auctioned to the outside world,” replied Mr Amare.
“Why is that a problem?
“These are our Ethiopian treasures. It is living heritage because we use these manuscripts, these crosses for the church services. Heritage is more meaningful for people when it comes from your country.”
The former colonial powers built great collections with objects that were removed or taken at gunpoint from countries that had absolutely no say in the matter.
However, the people who now curate and exhibit these collections have become significantly less comfortable about displaying them.
Scholar Alula Pankhurst is a well-known anthropologist and grandson of the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, who moved to Ethiopia in 1956. He has taken a keen interest in the whereabouts of Emperor Tewodros’ stolen treasures.
“Some ended up in museums, some went to soldiers. When the soldiers found Tewodros’ body, they ripped his hair and took bits of his shirt as souvenirs.
“The Imperial War Museum has returned a piece of his hair (in 2019). As the then (Ethiopian) minister of culture pointed out, it’s not such a nice thing to do to have human remains on display.”
In October, Jesus College, Cambridge, decided that it was not particularly nice to hang on to a famed “Benin bronze”, stolen by British troops from the Kingdom of Benin in 1897. Shortly afterwards, the University of Aberdeen handed back their bronze of the head of an Oba, or a king.
In November, the French returned 26 works plundered by colonial troops from the kingdom of Dahomey in present-day Benin.
The move followed a commitment made by President Emmanuel Macron to return all artefacts that were taken without consent.
Mr Macron’s pledge, announced during a visit to Burkina Faso in 2017, sent shock waves through the world’s museum community. The British Museum has the world’s biggest assortment of Benin bronzes with 928 in its collection, yet it has no plans to return them.
Members of the institution’s governing body cite the British Museum Act of 1963 which forbids the museum from disposing of its holdings, except in exceptional circumstances.
“Look, British cultural institutions and museums have provided a safe space to both preserve and display these items, they have essentially ensured their survival,” I suggested to Mr Pankhurst.
“That’s correct but let’s not forget that manuscripts have been kept in Ethiopia from the 6th century and they even had a system with cats that were there in the churches to protect the manuscripts from rats,” replied Mr Pankhurst.
These artefacts come with their own unique history, a record of creation, possession and theft that is part of their story. This history cannot be ignored and pressure to return these treasures will only increase.
A genuine willingness to repatriate them may be the best way to demonstrate that we have learnt from the past.
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