A teenage Abebe Alenayehu watched Italian soldiers haul away Axum's revered obelisk nearly seven decades ago and never thought he would...
AXUM, Ethiopia — A teenage Abebe Alenayehu watched Italian soldiers haul away Axum’s revered obelisk nearly seven decades ago and never thought he would live to see its return.
But if the weather cooperates, he will see the dream he shares with his nation come true today when a giant cargo plane returns the 82-foot monument’s top section to Axum, a wind-swept town that was the seat of the ancient Axumite Kingdom.
“The memory still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth,” Abebe said about the loss of a monument that Ethiopians consider the symbol of their nation. “Every day for the last 67 years I have thought about the obelisk.”
The Italian Foreign Ministry said yesterday that the two other pieces of the 176-ton obelisk should be back by the end of April. Lattanzi, the Italian company organizing the return, says no one has attempted to fly such a massive monument before.
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Abebe, 81, vividly recalls the day the masterpiece of the Axum civilization was taken away and shipped to Rome.
“All the adults in the town were under curfew,” he said. “But we played with the soldiers who gave us sweets and sugar. We didn’t realize what was happening, but our parents were hiding their faces and crying.”
The huge stone was raised long ago to commemorate Axumite dead, but it broke into three pieces when it was toppled during a 16th-century Muslim rebellion. After his troops overran Ethiopia, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini ordered the monument moved to Rome in 1937.
The weight of the fragments taxed the limits of military vehicles and the makeshift roads and bridges built by the Italians.
And getting it back to Ethiopia has also proved an engineering challenge.
“This is an extremely technical and delicate operation,” Lattanzi director Simone Pietero said.
Heaters were installed in the plane’s cargo bay to protect the stone from the cold of cruising altitude, and workers wrapped the obelisk fragment in steel bars to stabilize it in case of turbulence during the six-hour flight, Pietero said.
Engineers also prepared Axum’s tiny airport for the huge Antonov cargo plane’s landing and set up two cranes to lift the stone onto trucks that will drive to its original location a few miles away, where it will join several smaller obelisks.
Weather will be a key factor today. Pietero said a temperature higher than 60 degrees would further reduce the air density in the town 6,562 feet above sea level and make it impossible for the heavy aircraft to approach the runway at a safe speed.
Axum, home to about 60,000 people, was the capital of a kingdom established between 200 and 100 B.C. that at one time stretched across the Red Sea into parts of the Arabian Peninsula. The Queen of Sheba reigned in the region eight or nine centuries earlier, and her bathing pool and substantial remains of her palace can be seen in Axum.
Obelisks are among the few tangible remains of the past glory of Axum, about 530 miles north of Ethiopia’s capital in the shadow of the Adwa Mountains where Emperor Menelik II defeated the Italian army 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 said.
Ethiopians hope the monument’s return will highlight the rich historical heritage in the only African nation that European powers failed to colonize. Italian troops occupied Ethiopia in 1936-41, but it was never a colony.
The obelisk will not return home unscathed from its stay down the road from Rome’s Colosseum. It has been damaged by pollution, and a lightning strike in 2002 knocked several large chunks from the top.
That does not worry Abebe.
“We are just happy to get it back,” he said. “After all this time my body is a little weary, like the obelisk. But this is its home.”