- Ethiopia's national pride, the obelisk of Axum, has finally returned home 68 years after Italian soldiers carted it off to Rome during Mussolini's invasion. The iconic monument is now being re-installed by archaeological and conservation specialists, who in the process discovered more archaeological treasures under a parking lot.
The 1,700-year-old, 24.6 metre-high, 160-tonne funeral stele, which has become a symbol of the Ethiopian people's identity, was cut into three sections to facilitate its transportation by air, and the last segment arrived yesterday in Axum, a UNESCO World Heritage site near Ethiopia's northern border with Eritrea.
At the request of the Ethiopian and Italian governments, the UN's cultural organisation UNESCO had drawn up re-installation plans, and in the process the archaeologists it sent uncovered vestiges of a royal necropolis used by several dynasties before ancient Ethiopia's Christian era.
The team of experts, headed by archaeologist Rodolfo Fattovich, an expert on Axum at the Instituto Universitario Orientale of Naples, Italy, conducted a "non-invasive archaeological prospection" of the site.
- Underground chambers and arcades have been found in the vicinity of the original location of the obelisk, said Elizabeth Wangari of UNESCO's World Heritage Centre and Jim Williams, of the agency's Culture Sector, who took part in the mission. "Geo-radar and electrotomographic prospection, the most advanced technologies for underground observation, revealed the existence of several vast funerary chambers under the site's parking ground, which was built in 1963."
UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura said the eventual opening of the new tombs to the public would be an additional asset for the site, which by boosting cultural tourism could contribute to Ethiopia's economic development.
The Axum archaeological site consists of three parts containing 176 stelae: the Northern Site, the Gudit Stelae Field named after the Jewish Queen who took power in the 10th century, and the central area where the stele, now known as the Axum Obelisk, used to stand.
A number of tombs, some of them pillaged, have been discovered in Axum since the 1970s. Their riches are at the archaeological museums of Axum and Addis Ababa. Only one of the Axum tombs, the Tomb of the False Door, is open to the public. UNESCO's Mr Matsuura welcomed "this important discovery," saying it was "likely that some of the tombs identified through under-ground imaging are intact."
Axum was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1980. Last November, after decades of failed negotiations, the governments of Ethiopia and Italy signed a bilateral agreement on the return of the Axum Obelisk. The obelisk has stood on a central plaza in Rome since 1937.
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