East Africa Return of African Icons 2020

Ethiopia’s stolen artefacts have irreplaceable value for its people

Ethiopia’s stolen artefacts have irreplaceable value for its people
  • PublishedSeptember 11, 2020

The artefacts stolen by the British during the battle of Maqdala have spiritual, symbolic and religious value for the people of Ethiopia. Ethiopia should be given the opportunity to decide how and where to keep them, says Lidya Bekele.

Having been born and raised in Ethiopia, I have lived in my country long enough to admire its culture, diversity and beliefs. Growing up, I was always surrounded by friends and family who are proud to call themselves Ethiopian and wouldn’t change it for anything else.

Being Ethiopian is having the spirit of unity regardless of how different we are, it is priding ourselves in having a unique culture, norms, and beliefs. One of only two African countries never colonised, our independence is a significant part of our history.

Independence comes with the ability to have our own languages as the national languages, represent our authentic cultures and govern countries ourselves.

The stolen artefacts and human remains taken during the battle of Maqdala in 1868 have spiritual, symbolic and religious values for my country and are irreplaceable pieces of cultural property and heritage.

The stolen Tabots have very little significance to the British people.

Tabot is a Ge’ez word referring to a replica of the Tablets of Law, onto which the Ten Commandments were inscribed, before being used in the practices of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. 

The most famous ceremony tied to the concept of Tabot is called Timkat or Timqat (meaning ‘baptism’). During the ceremonies of Timkat, the Tabot is reverently wrapped in rich cloth and borne in procession on the head of the priest.

According to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Tabot, which is barely seen by the laity, represents the manifestation of Jesus as the messiah, when he came to Jordan for baptism. By noon on Timkat Day, a large crowd assembles at the ritual site and the Holy Ark is escorted back to its church in a colourful procession amid festivities.

The clergy, bearing robes and umbrellas of many colours, perform exuberant dances and songs. The elders march solemnly with their weapons, attended by middle-aged men singing a long-drawn, low-pitched song.

Dressed in their finest, the women chatter excitedly on their one real day of freedom in the year. This day is a time for women to forget about household responsibilities and gather around to celebrate their strong faith.

The young braves leap up and down in spirited dances, tirelessly repeating rhythmic songs. When the Holy Ark has been safely restored to its dwelling-place, everyone goes home for feasting.

This celebration, so important to Ethiopian life, was declared by UNESCO as an example of Intangible Human Heritage in 2019.

Enormous cultural value

It also shows how much value the stolen artefacts have to the people of Ethiopia. They have no use in foreign lands because they are not believed to be sacred there. But to the people that are part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church like myself, they hold a very important place in our beliefs. They are part of who we are and what guide our principles.

Other stolen artefacts and human remains hold as much value. They are a representation of my history, identity, and beliefs. They are a symbol of my culture.

Even though there have been measures taken to request the repatriation of this stolen heritage, there has been very little response. The justification seems to be that Ethiopia does not have the means to preserve these artefacts in the best way possible.

I believe Ethiopia should be given the opportunity to decide how and where to keep them. Ethiopians deserve full access to their heritage to learn about their history.

No matter where this heritage currently lies, it will always hold an important place for all of us Ethiopians. We hope we can have the artefacts back in our land someday.

Lidya Bekele is an Ethiopian student at Lehigh University.


About the Return of African Icons 2020 special report

This article forms part of the Return of African Icons 2020 special report in the August/September 2020 edition of New African magazine.

The colonial period led to the wholesale plundering of African icons, many of which still languish in Western museums and other heritage sites. It is time they were brought back home to help close another painful chapter. This report has been compiled in collaboration with the African Foundation for Development (AFFORD), which has been one of the leading campaigners for the return of African icons and restitution for past wrongs. It lays out the current state of play and the growing momentum for this noble cause.

Click to view more articles from the Return of the Icons 2020 special report.

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New African

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