AXUM, Ethiopia — With pealing bells and chanting priests, Ethiopians welcomed the return Tuesday of the first piece of a giant, 1,700-year-old granite obelisk that was looted from the African country 68 years ago by Italian troops.
A giant Antonov 124 cargo plane brought the middle section of the 80-foot high funeral stone to northern Ethiopia — a homecoming that follows decades of demands and promises of its return.
The 58-ton piece was placed under armed guard at the airport until the two remaining pieces are flown to Axum from Rome later this month. The obelisk was taken in 1937 on the orders of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
“This is an historic moment for all Ethiopians,” said Minister of Culture Teshome Toga, who received the granite monument that once symbolized one of the most powerful kingdoms on earth, the Axumite Kingdom. “We have waited so long for this.”
Priests from the dome-shaped St. Mariam Cathedral chanted and bells rung for the arrival of the first piece of the monolith, which dates back to the third century, predating the arrival of Christianity in Ethiopia.
Queen of Sheba's legacy
The Axumite kingdom was established between 200 and 100 B.C. The legendary Queen of Sheba reigned in the region eight or nine centuries earlier, and the Old Testament tells the tale of her journey to King Solomon’s court in 980 B.C. with 700 camels loaded with gold, ivory and other gifts. Her bathing pool and substantial remains of her palace can still be found in Axum.
Axum was the capital of a powerful, pre-Christian Axum Empire that stretched into parts of the Arabian peninsula. Legend has it that Axum was also the final resting palace of the Ark of the Covenant.
Massive obelisks are among a few tangible remains of the past glory of Axum, an area lying in the shadow of the Adwa Mountains where Emperor Menelik II defeated the Italians in 1896 — the greatest modern victory of an African army over a European force.
“The obelisk is a symbol of pride, of civilization and part of the Ethiopian identity,” archaeologist Teckle Hargos told The Associated Press.
Had been in central Rome
When it was removed, the obelisk was in fragments, having been toppled during a sixteenth-century Muslim rebellion. The weight of the fragments pushed the limits of military vehicles and makeshift roads and bridges built by the Italians. Once in Rome, it was restored with metal rods embedded in concrete, making it difficult to disassemble.
The obelisk was dismantled at the end of 2003 from where it stood near the Circus Maximus in central Rome.
Ethiopians hope the return of the obelisk, which is carved on all sides with windows and doors, will highlight the rich historical heritage in the only African nation that European powers failed to colonize. Italy occupied Ethiopia from 1936-1941, but it was never a colony.
“People outside of Ethiopia often think of famine, of war, of drought and don’t realize the wealth of heritage that this country does have,” Teckle said.
At home with other obelisks
When all the pieces have arrived at the airport, the ancient stele will be transported on three separate trucks to its final resting place, three miles from the airport. It will then be erected alongside six other obelisks, which once dominated the skyline of the Axumite Empire — now a small, wind-swept town and home to 60,000 people.
Bunting and flags adorned tress, flapping in the early morning breeze along the only paved road in Axum, a town that still remains largely cut off from the outside world.
Thousands of people lined roads at daybreak chanting and waving banners to celebrate the return.
Amese Lema, who fought the Italian occupation and has been campaigning for the return of the obelisk since 1966, wept on its arrival.
“This marks a new chapter with Italy,” the 85-year-old said. “Although I always knew it would be returned I never thought I would live to see the day.”
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