Addis Ababa — One fascinating thing about the story of James Bruce, the 18th century Scottish traveler and travel writer, was that he studied the Ge'ez language in Europe, Spain, before he even came to Ethiopia. Though his main mission in coming to East African was seemingly to find the origin of the Nile River, Bruce spent a lot of time in Abyssinian [Ethiopian] court and studying the people and their culture.
Eventually, (if it was not his mission to come to Ethiopia at the first place), he came to understand the value of the Old Testament Book of Enoch, which is [still] part of the Orthodox Tewahedo biblical canon.
Obviously, witnessing such a prominent Book, Bruce procured three copies and took them to Europe.
The irony is that the biblical Book of Enoch was lost for centuries in the occidental. Perhaps, there is possibility that Bruce already knew this mysterious Book was found in Ethiopia and hence part of his missions was to procure it. Later on, this ancient manuscript was translated and made available in English to the western world and the international community.
This mysterious book is of paramount importance to anyone who is interested in the general history of the bible, particularly considering the fact that it is quoted by the New Testament Book of Jude. Besides, this Book, which is relevant to contemporary Christianity and yet bizarrely abandoned by Western Christianity, Bruce also took other collection of codex manuscripts from Ethiopia, though their exact number is not known.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, Ethiopia is the only country with the most ancient tradition of written culture. It seemed strange for westerners that this African country hold such valuable manuscripts. And it should not be surprising if there is much interest in ancient Ge'ez manuscripts, the official language of middle age Ethiopia.
In fact, there is nothing wrong with the fact that this accumulated knowledge made available to the international community. But it is the looting and illegal trafficking of these valuable manuscripts and other cultural heritages which is against morality and rights of their rightful owners.
Though it is difficult to get exact figures, various sources indicate that the numerous monastic libraries across the country hold some 200,000 to 500,000 ancient Ge'ez codex manuscripts. Moreover, thousands have already been lost and smuggled out of the country. The fact that Bruce managed to study Ge'ez before he came to Ethiopia reveal that Ethiopian manuscripts had already been trafficked to Europe, one way or another.
Hailemelekote Agizewe, Senior Heritage Conservator at the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritages (ARCCH) says while majority of the looted Ethiopian cultural heritages are smuggled out of the country through wars and expeditions to Ethiopia by foreign forces, tourists, guides, researchers, missionaries and diplomats have also been smuggling the heritages out of the country.
The two major incidents that led to widespread looting of Ethiopia's heritages, according to him, are the British expedition to and the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. The looting reached its disgraceful peak in 1968 British Expedition to Abyssinia.
According to late British professor the Richard Pankhurst, who was the founding member of the Association for the return of Maqdala Ethiopian Treasures (AFROMET) and the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, the heritages looted from Emperor Tewodros' capital following the expedition included gold crowns, the icon of the Qwerata Re'esu, or Christ with the Crown of Thorns, the Emperor's great seal, numerous gold, silver and bronze crosses and religious objects and tabots [replicas of the Ark of the Covenant], regal tents, over five hundred Ge'ez manuscripts, and a wealth of state archival materials.
According to Hailemelekote, the looting was worsened by the fact that the Emperor had already assembled at the citadel a significant number of age long cultural heritages of different types from across the country.
During the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, the most notable heritage to be taken out of Ethiopia was The Axum Obelisk, which was later disgracefully erected in Italy's capital Rome, for around 70 years.
While the country has lost so many of its heritages in the past, what is saddening the most is the looting and trafficking are still persistent.
Sadly, few irresponsible citizens including those in religious institutions assist international antique dealers to smuggle heritages out of Ethiopia.
"We have prepared a national scientific heritages registration manual format," says Abera Anjulo, Cultural Heritage Inspection and Standardization Senior Expert at the authority. "We are also preparing national data base for cultural heritages".
ARCCH was established by proclamation number 1992/209. According to the proclamation, individuals who engage in illegal smuggling of cultural heritages will face six to 20 years jail sentence. However, because of lack of awareness about the value of heritages, the proclamation has not been properly enforced. Hence, it is vital to improve the awareness of those in the judiciary about the national value of heritages," Abera emphasizes.
While, ARCCH has been exerting efforts to setting up a catalogue of all remaining heritages to prevent their looting, an enormous amount of effort is required to restitute looted heritages.
In addition to the effort of AFROMENT, and the Society of Friends of the Institutes of Ethiopian Studies, which succeeded in restituting several icons, crosses, manuscripts and paintings to the country, an organized movement that includes diplomatic engagements is required to make sure the return of Ethiopian heritages.
Globally, several thousands of cultural heritages and treasures moved to new locations from their countries of origin legally or illegally. There has been an international movement and conferences which called for restitution of lost cultural heritages and treasures to their countries of origins. Yet, the issue of restitution remains controversial.
One of the counter arguments against restitution by western museum curators is the safety of the heritages. They claim that they are the ones who could ensure the longevity of the cultural heritages as they have state-of-the-art facilities.
From historical and current trends, one can come up with two opposing view on the issue. First, the situations in the countries of origin might not be favorable to carefully conserve these treasures because of various reasons, including security and instability. Sadly enough, there is still an ongoing looting and plundering of heritages from these countries.
Yet, on the other hand, it should not be left unnoticed that Ethiopians, for instance, are highly dedicated to keeping their cultural traditions and heritages intact. One clear testimony is that the Book of Enoch was conserved by Ethiopians while it was abandoned by and disappeared in Europe for long.
"Today, international agreements and conventions the country signed make it difficult to request the return of treasures looted prior 1950's," says Abera. But there is legal loophole for the Maqdala treasures to return home as it differs to other restitution cases. This is because; it is acknowledged that the treasures were simply stolen.
Still, thousands of Ethiopia's heritages are found in other countries, including Emperor Tewodros' hair which is kept in the British National Army Museum. Some including the British newspaper, The Independent estimated that the value of the Maqdala treasures alone would be billions of USD.
There have also been some success stories in returning some heritages.
One of the most prominent campaigns has forced Italy return the 3,000-year-old obelisk of Axum. Belgium has returned a cross, dating back 800 years, made of brass, stolen from one of the rock-hewn churches in Lalibela. It is believed that there are still more than 2000 Ethiopian handwritten manuscripts in Germany, France and Britain that dated from the 13th to the 20th century.
Specifically speaking of the Maqdala treasures, efforts to restore these precious heritages started immediately followed the aftermath. Emperor Yohannes IV was deeply saddened by the loss of the heritages. Though full restitution of the heritage seemed a daunting task, in 1872, he wrote two letters to Queen Victoria and the British Foreign Secretary, respectively.
In the latter, the Emperor requested the return of two most prominent heritages. The manuscript is the Kebra Nagast, [Glory of Kings] and the icon is known in Ge'ez as a Kwer'ata Re'esu, [Striking of His Head], a representation of Christ with the Crown of Thorns.
According to AFROMET's website, up on receiving the latter, the British authorities, particularly the British museum only agreed to return one copy of the Kebra Nagast, though the museum possessed two copies. Their response to the request to return the icon was simply, it could not be found.
An English woman, named Lady Valorie Meux, who possessed the most famous private collection of Ethiopian manuscripts from Maqdala, later made her Will, on January 1910 to return the manuscripts to Emperor Menilek. However, she died on 20 December of the same year. Her Will was not materialized as it faced resistance from sections of the British public. An article in The Times, of 7 February 1911, stated: "Many persons interested in Oriental Christianity... will view with extreme regret the decision of Lady Meux to send her valuable MSS once and for all out of the country".
The British Government also returned Emperor's Tewodros' silver-gilt crown in 1924, to Empress Zawditu, enabling the Victoria and Albert Museum to retain the more valuable, gold crown. Forty years later, at the end of Queen Elizabeth's State visit to Ethiopia in 1965, the British Government also returned Tewodros' royal cap and seal.
In the past decade, former FDRE president Girma Wolde-Giorgis personally wrote letter to the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the British Library and Cambridge University Library seeking the restitution of more than 400 so-called "treasures of Maqdala".
In the letter, the President wrote: "I must state that Ethiopians have long grieved at the loss of this part of their national heritage.
Ethiopians feel that this act of appropriation had no justification in international law. I feel, therefore, that the time has come for the return of Ethiopia's looted treasures."
But it seems that there should come time for the return of the loot from Maqdala in its entirety, as most treasures, for instance the tabos, has no meaning outside of the Ethiopian church, and hence to outsiders.