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GRANT PARKER

Return looted treasures to their rightful owners

LAST WEEK a cargo jet brought the first part of a 1,700-year-old Ethiopian pillar from Italy to its historic home in the city of Axum. The return of this treasure has great significance, not just for the Italian and Ethiopian governments, but for cultural property disputes worldwide.

Many, in Ethiopia and beyond, have welcomed its return. It ends decades of public outcry against successive Italian governments since Mussolini had the pillar -- generally referred to as an obelisk but more correctly called a stele -- brought from Axum in 1937, during the Italian wartime occupation.

The return is a cause for celebration because it represents a victory in the struggle for a more equitable worldwide policy on cultural property. UNESCO and its International Council of Museums have sought to secure international cooperation on the preservation of antiquities in their original locations. But efforts such as UNESCO's resolutions of 1970 and 1995 have struggled to get the support they need to be effective.

It was in May 2002, during my own stay in Rome on a visit to study the city's dozen or so ancient obelisks, that the Axum stele was struck by lightning and seriously damaged. This event seems to have jolted the Italian government into action. It had promised to return the stele since a treaty of 1947, but then dragged its heels. No longer could it claim that it was safer in Rome than at Axum.

For the Ethiopian government, the stele is a source of national pride, diverting attention away from contemporary issues such as war, poverty, famine, HIV/AIDS, and government corruption. It dates back to the third century AD, at a time when the ancient Ethiopian kingdom prospered from international trade. Soon thereafter, Axum became an early home of the Christian church.

Today, the Axum airport, sporting a new terminal, is part of the historical circuit that brings dollar-paying tourists to a variety of archeological sites. The celebrity status of the stele should strengthen Ethiopia's appeal to international tourists, especially now that the cessation of war with Eritrea has made travel there easier.

With the stele's return, pressure may increase on the many countries still in possession of looted treasures.

In the British invasion of Ethiopia in 1867-68, for example, several hundred objects were taken to Britain, and are now mostly in London's Victoria and Albert Museum. The British government already has been under pressure, especially before the 2004 Olympics, to return to Athens the Parthenon Friezes, often referred to as the Elgin Marbles. That pressure is now likely to increase, particularly if the Blair government wins reelection and follows through on its promise to strengthen ties with Africa.

The removal of ancient objects from their original sites is not just a thing of the past, as the looting of the Baghdad Museum in April 2003 has shown. While some of the Iraqi objects have been recovered, most have passed illicitly into private hands. Italy itself continues to suffer the transnational looting of archeological sites. Even large ones such as Pompeii are inadequately guarded and suffer theft on a regular basis. In the face of various international agreements, Silvio Berlusconi's government has done little to protect Italian antiquities from looting and the illicit trade in antiquities; on the contrary, members of his party sought in November to legalize private ownership.

The Swiss government also has provided a boon to the illegal antiquities trade. Objects lacking legitimate provenance can become legal if they travel via that route into the European Union. The Swiss government has, however, recently vowed to exert tighter control.

Meanwhile, the antiquities market, benefiting from improved worldwide transportation, remains a juggernaut that continues to gain in strength. It affects not only war-torn developing countries such as Ethiopia and Afghanistan but wealthy industrialized ones as well.

The Axum stele, in its visibility, points us to these invisible crimes. Let's hope that its return signals the beginning of stricter control over the import and export of cultural property across international borders.

Grant Parker is an assistant professor of classical studies and history at Duke University and is writing a book about ancient Roman importation of Egyptian obelisks.


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