The Magdala treasures
Story by Impressions Staff
High on the bleak Magdala plateau of Ethiopia’s Northeast Wollo region, a solitary old canon known as Sebastopol still stands. Built by Emperor Tewodros II, one of Ethiopia’s most visionary and dynamic rulers, it was here that he fought and lost against the British in 1868. Following this humiliating defeat, the British looted many royal and sacred treasures. Many are now kept in museums and libraries around Britain, and the Ethiopian people are fighting for their return as they are items of huge religious significance to a strong living faith.
Predominantly a Christian country, religion is integrated into daily life throughout Ethiopia. Christianity first arrived in the fourth century. Tewodros was a reforming Christian monarch who tried to unify and modernise Ethiopia. Hoping to enlist the help of the British, he wrote to Queen Victoria but received no reply, so the frustrated emperor imprisoned several British people. In retaliation, the British sent a large army, led by Sir Robert Napier, whose superior forces quickly won the battle. Tewodros took his own life rather than suffer the humiliation of surrender, displaying the characteristic Ethiopian pride for which he is so revered.
Fifteen elephants and 200 mules were needed to carry the vast quantities of treasures pillaged by the British soldiers. They took ancient illustrated manuscripts, sacred tabots, silver processional crosses and royal crowns. Richard Pankhurst, a British historian and founder of AFROMET (Association for the Return of the Ethiopian
Magdala Treasures), says: “As the loot was largely the property of Magdala’s church, it constituted an act of sacrilege.” The soldiers also stripped Tewodros’s body, even tearing the hair from his head. They torched the entire settlement, leaving behind only the Sebastopol canon and ruined remains of the fortress.
Many Ethiopians are desperate for their cultural and historical heritage to be returned. The stolen tabots are particularly integral to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as these carved pieces of wood are believed to be replicas of the Ark of the Covenant. Ethiopians believe that the Ark, in which the Israelites carried the Ten Commandments, now resides in the north of the country. Every church contains a tabot in its inner sanctuary which is guarded at all times. The tabots are so sacred that no one except the priests may ever see them. During the numerous religious festivals they are paraded around the church under ornate brocades, amid the beating of ceremonial drums and the ululations of worshippers.
The belief system surrounding the tabots is an unusual one as no other Christian church gives such importance to what is, by definition, a pre-Christian and Judaic tradition.
There are currently nine tabots packed up in the darkened stores of the British Museum. Due to their sanctity they cannot be displayed to the public so there is little reason why they should be kept. Back in Ethiopia, however, they would be used as a central part of daily religious devotions. Sitting in his thick, velvet robes, Abune Paulos, Head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church say: “We pray for their return as they are part of our soul.”
One of the Magdala tabots found its way to St John’s Church in Edinburgh. Last year the vicar, the Rev John McLuckie, was rummaging in a cupboard looking for a communion set when he found a battered leather box. Having previously worked in Ethiopia, he realised that the wooden slab inside was a sacred tabot. He immediately returned it to its rightful owners, causing huge celebrations as hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians filled the streets of Addis Ababa to welcome it home. One Ethiopian church elder, Fikrum Woldie, said: “You can sense the feeling of the people on the streets on this historical day, it is beyond all explanation.” It is hard to imagine the joy and pride which would be felt if the other nine were returned. The leather-bound religious manuscripts from Magdala are essential to the history of Ethiopian art. Many are beautifully illustrated and illuminated, with animated scenes from the bible painted in rich colours.
The preparation of these books is an age-old traditional Ethiopian craft. Tewodros’s library held the best manuscripts, using styles from all over the country, as he planned to build up a centre of learning. Three hundred and fifty of these manuscripts were brought to England. One of them is the Kebra Negast, Ethiopia’s holy book, which is of huge sentimental value as it details the country’s transition to Christianity. There are also books of the Old Testament, synaxar detailing the lives of saints, collections of psalms and the miracles of St Mary. Like the tabots, most of the manuscripts are not on public display.
The campaign for the return of the Magdala treasures is supported by many political figures, including Mayor of London Ken Livingstone and Derek Wyatt MP. Speaking of the vast Magdala collection Derek Wyatt says: “In my view, these items should be returned to Ethiopia. This will both satisfy the very keen needs of Ethiopia’s Christian community and enhance Ethiopia’s ability to attract tourists. Ethiopia’s future lies in diversifying its economy away from coffee into industry and tourism.’
British ownership of these artefacts was first discussed in the House of Commons in 1871 when Lord Napier declared that they should only be kept in the UK on a temporary basis until “an opportunity is offered for restoring them” to Ethiopia. AFROMET and others feel that this time is long due. Today Ethiopia has a number of very well-established museums and libraries, including the renowned institute of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa. In the past the British Museum has argued against the repatriation of the treasures, fearing they would not be looked after properly. There have, however, been cases against the British Museum for the bad handling of objects in its care, including irreparable damage done to the Elgin Marbles during cleaning.
The strong attachment Ethiopians have to religion is very evident in Lalibela, an isolated town which nestles in the rugged Lasta mountains. According to legend, it was here that King Lalibela built 11 rock-hewn churches after a vision from God. During the crusades it became too dangerous for pilgrims to travel to Jerusalem so King Lalibela decided to create Ethiopia’s own holy place. It is the dream of all Ethiopian Christians to come to Lalibela at least once during their lifetime. The Lalibela churches are an awesome sight and considered to be the eighth wonder of the world.
LAST YEAR THE VICAR, THE REV JOHN MCLUCKIE FROM ST JOHN’S CHURCH IN EDINBURGH, WAS RUMMAGING IN A CUPBOARD WHEN HE FOUND A BATTERED LEATHER BOX. HAVING PREVIOUSLY WORKED IN ETHIOPIA, HE REALISED THAT THE WOODEN SLAB INSIDE WAS A SACRED TABOT. HE IMMEDIATELY RETURNED IT TO ITS RIGHTFUL OWNERS.
Remarkably, they were hand-carved from the terracotta volcanic tufa stone on which they stand, around 850 years ago. Some have been completely excavated below ground level and are linked by a vast labyrinth of narrow passageways and tunnels. The churches testify to the power and spirit of the early Christian faith, a faith which is still held by Ethiopians with an undiminished vigour.
Within the cool interiors of the church, shafts of light fall onto men and women wrapped in embroidered white cotton cloth, deep in prayer. Some kiss the walls and floor fervently, while others rest in the corners after hours of worship. There are soft murmurs as people read from the synaxar and other sacred manuscripts. Many are so absorbed in prayer that they seem indifferent to what is happening around them. The scent of frankincense circles in the air as censers are swayed.
THE LALIBELA CHURCHES ARE AN AWESOME SIGHT AND CONSIDERED TO BE THE EIGHTH WONDER OF THE WORLD. REMARKABLY, THEY WERE HAND-CARVED FROM THE TERRACOTTA VOLCANIC TUFA STONE ON WHICH THEY STAND, AROUND 850 YEARS AGO.
Inside Bet Giyorgis, one of Lalibela’s most spectacular churches, built in the shape of a Greek cross, a priest leans against a prayer stick. In his hand he holds an ornate processional cross which he uses to bless worshippers. The stone entrance is eroded into a crescent by the countless pattering of barefoot devotees. Candles flicker in front of the dimly lit holy of holies. The upper level is used to house the treasures of Bet Giyorgis, each church having its own proud collection of crosses, paintings and manuscripts. Outside, caves are filled with the bones of pilgrims who chose this holy ground as their final resting place.
There are many ongoing debates about whether the Magdala treasures should be returned to Ethiopia. The objects hold no significance in Great Britain - especially as the majority aren’t even on display for public enjoyment. However, their huge spiritual and religious importance for Ethiopians leaves little doubt about what should ultimately be done.
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