Ethiopia asks Queen to give back Stolen Magdala treasures

THE QUEEN is being asked to hand over manuscripts that have been kept at Windsor Castle since they were looted from Ethiopia by the British Army more than 130 years ago. The campaign for the return of the documents is being led by Professor Richard Pankhurst, whose grandmother Emmeline was the suffragette leader.

Pankhurst, who teaches at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, has written to the Queen pointing out that his home country is now capable of looking after its own treasures. He says the documents — dating from the 16th and 17th centuries and all richly illustrated — are “six of the finest Ethiopian religious manuscripts in existence”.

They are part of a treasure trove of documents and artefacts seized after the battle of Magdala in 1868. Other precious works — including a golden crown and chalice, altar slabs and a number of crosses — are held at the British Library, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

New impetus has been given to the demands after Italy’s decision to return the Axum obelisk, which was taken by Mussolini’s troops after they invaded the country, then known as Abyssinia, in the 1930s. It weighs more than 100 tons and is in Rome, dismantled into three pieces, waiting for a US military cargo to become available to fly it back to its landlocked homeland.

“Italy is leading the way and we hope Britain will follow suit and put right the wrongs of the past,” Pankhurst said.

“We are not talking about archeological artefacts that belong to a defunct civilisation. The religious objects belong to an ancient orthodox church that is still a very active faith today.”

The campaign, supported by the Ethiopian government, has been likened to the calls for the Elgin marbles to be returned by the British Museum to Greece.

The seizure of the treasures came at what Ethiopians regard as one of the low points in their history. British forces under General Sir Robert Napier invaded in 1867 and stormed the fortress of Magdala after the country’s ruler, Emperor Theodore II, imprisoned western diplomats and missionaries there.

Theodore shot himself with a revolver given to him by Queen Victoria. His body was seized by British soldiers who, according to one contemporary account, fell on it “as if it had been a dead fox and then began to pull and tear the clothes to pieces until it was nearly naked”.

After the battle the troops loaded 200 mules and 15 elephants with gold crowns, swords and altar slabs and burnt down Magdala. Most of the booty went to institutions such as the British Museum and the Bodleian Library in Oxford but six of the most beautiful books were given to Victoria.

Author: EDITOR

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