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Aksum obelisk returns to Ethiopia: UNESCO to handle its reintegration into the World Heritage site

Thursday, 17 March 2005
access_time 2 min read

At the request of the Ethiopian and Italian governments, UNESCO will send an evaluation team to Aksum, in northern Ethiopia, to prepare the return of its celebrated obelisk. The obelisk has been in Rome since 1937.

UNESCO will draw up the re-installation project for the obelisk and the development of the site, which will be funded by Italy. The obelisk has been cut into three sections to facilitate its transportation and is at Rome airport waiting to be flown to Ethiopia. The first section, weighing 60 tonnes, is expected to arrive in Aksum in early April.

On November 18 last year, the two governments signed an agreement for the return of the Aksum obelisk, in keeping with the 1972 Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. The World Heritage Convention commits States Parties, to “give their help in the identification, protection, conservation and presentation of the cultural and natural heritage.” The Aksum archaeological site was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1980. In virtue of the Convention, both States Parties requested UNESCO’s cooperation in returning the obelisk to its original site.

“This highly symbolic gesture, born of a common agreement between Italy and Ethiopia is to be welcomed by the entire international community,” said UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura. “This is a historic moment. After 68 years in exile, the Aksum obelisk returns to the heart of ancient Ethiopia, to the Tigrai region. It will once again be erected in the former kingdom, which the Persian philosopher Mani called the ‘world’s third kingdom’ and whose relics were among the first to be inscribed on the World Heritage List.”

The funeral stele, weighing 160 tonnes and standing 24 metres high, is around 1,700 years old and has become a symbol of the Ethiopian people’s identity. In 1937 the Italian army took it to Italy.

Following the signing of two agreements by Italy and Ethiopia, in 1956 and 1997, Ethiopia formed a national committee for the return of the obelisk. This committee, working with the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), has carried out research and technical analyses to prepare the segmentation and transportation of the obelisk to Ethiopia.

Ahead of the obelisk’s return, the Ethiopian authorities responsible for its transportation from Aksum airport to the archaeological site, have already modernized the airport and reinforced the two bridges it will cross on its journey.