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Eritrea/Ethiopia: A new row over ancient artifacts


ASMARA, 10 Feb 2005 EDnews:  Eritrea is to demand the return from Ethiopia of hundreds of archaeological artifacts taken from ancient sites in the 1960s, an official said on Thursday, threatening a new row between the feuding Horn of Africa neighbors.
In addition, Asmara will petition Italy for the return of objects that it says were taken by Italian nationals before Eritrea - an Italian colony and then-British protectorate annexed by Ethiopia in 1962 - won independence in 1993.
"The Eritrean National Commission for UNESCO will officially ask in a few months for the return of the cultural property taken by Italy, then Ethiopia," National Museum chief Lebsekal Yosief said.
Lebsekal said that Eritrea, like Ethiopia, wants to preserve its cultural heritage and that items excavated from sites at the southern town of Matara, the Red Sea port of Adulis and monasteries near Asmara, should be returned.
"Today, just as Ethiopia asks Italy to hand back the Axum stele, we ask the Ethiopians to hand back the objects found in Matara, which are currently in Addis Ababa," Lebsekal said.
He referred to the ancient 160-tonne granite monument taken from the Ethiopian town of Axum by Italian troops in 1937 that is to be returned to Ethiopia this year after a protracted dispute that soured relations between Rome and Addis Ababa for decades.
Between 1960 and 1965, in the early years of Eritrea's struggle for independence from Ethiopia, a team headed by French archaeologist Francis Anfray conducted research in Matara, which dates from the seventh century BC.
The site, located on a desert plain surrounded by enormous rocky outcrops near the southern town of Senafe about 135 kilometers (84 miles) from Asmara, is scattered with the ruins of ancient villas and churches.
Anfray and his team unearthed hundreds of artifacts, including sarcophagi, tombs, pottery and coins, that were taken to Ethiopia and have remained in a museum in Addis Ababa ever since, according to Lebsekal.
Beginning in the seventh century, Matara gradually disappeared as its trade declined and the Red Sea port of Adulis gained in importance.
Lebsekal said that Eritrea also believed that artifacts were taken from Adulis and that twelfth and thirteenth century manuscripts from the Debre Bizen monastery near Asmara had already appeared in exhibitions in Ethiopia.
"And among the Italians there were many amateurs digging around who found archaeological objects," he said.
Prospects for the repatriation of the artifacts are uncertain as ties between Asmara and Addis Ababa remain tense over the as-yet unsettled final border demarcation that was the cornerstone of the accord that ended their 1998 to 2000 war.

But Lebsekal is optimistic.

Horn of Africa observers say that this opens an opportunity to resolve the row through dialogue, which then can be developed to address the impasse over the borer issue through dialogue as well.

"Look at Italy," he said. "Initially, it didn't want to return the Axum stele to the Ethiopians, but in the end it is going to."
Eritrea still harbors deep resentment over what it claims was Ethiopia's intentional destruction of the Matara stele, which fell down in 2000 while Ethiopian troops were in the region and still lies on the ground.
"The Ethiopians say it was an accident, but archaeologists showed me it had been deliberately dynamited at the base," Lebsekal said.
Work is now underway on a new base and he said that the stele, which is carved with the pre-Christian symbol of a sun over a crescent moon and writing in the ancient Semitic language of Ge'ez, should be stood back up in its original position by the end of this month. Material from
Middle East Times .


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