The British Museum objects that no one can see and that Ethiopia claims

Ethiopian Orthodox priests wearing tabots on their heads / photo Jean Rebiffé on Wikimedia Commons

Although the British never conquered or colonized Ethiopia, in April 1868 a battle took place there that ended the so-called British Expedition to Abyssinia (as the country was then known).

Statue of Theodore II at Gonder Airport, Ethiopia / photo Vob08 on Wikimedia Commons

It all began in October 1862 when Emperor Theodore II of Ethiopia, beset by internal unrest and external threats, requested military assistance from Queen Victoria by asking for skilled workers who could teach Ethiopians how to make weapons, through a letter delivered to the British ambassador. But for bureaucratic reasons the letter did not reach the queen until a year later. Even so, it was ignored.

Theodore patiently waited for a response from the queen, and after two years of silence he could not think of anything else but to imprison the ambassador and all the British residents in Ethiopia, as well as other European citizens. A diplomatic mission headed by Hormuzd Rassam was sent with a letter of response from the queen, but without the requested workers, which led to their imprisonment as well.

The prisoners at Magdala in 1868 / photo public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Then in 1868 the above-mentioned expedition was organized, which was to be a rescue mission led by Marshal Robert Napier in command of 30,000 troops. The British entered Ethiopia from India, helped on the ground by the opponents of the emperor, reaching the plain in front of the capital Magdala on April 10. Theodore’s troops were defeated and the bombing of the city began.

British troops before the assault on Magdala / photo public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Theodore released all the western prisoners, but ordered 300 rebel Ethiopian prisoners to be thrown off a cliff. He himself, in order not to be captured, took his own life on April 13, when the British troops were already storming the citadel. Marshal Napier then allowed his men to sack the city, including the churches, as a punitive measure. The soldiers took away many historical and religious objects, some of which ended up in the British Library and the British Museum. It is said that in order to take all the loot, 15 elephants and about 200 mules were needed.

An Ethiopian tabot at the Linden-Museum in Stuttgart / photo public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Among the objects plundered were numerous tabots (an Ethiopian word referring to replicas of the biblical Tablets of the Law). They are quadrangular objects, between 15 and 40 centimeters on each side, made of alabaster, marble or wood, which Ethiopian priests use in ritual processions. They are carried on their heads, but always wrapped in cloth, as no one is allowed to see them.

Some, which were kept in British churches, were already returned to their country of origin. But there are still 11 tabots left in the British Museum. They are stored in a warehouse whose location is so confidential that not even the museum’s curator for Africa, Oceania and America, Lissant Bolton, has ever entered it, nor of course has she ever seen the tabots. Each tabot is believed to be wrapped in cloth and placed on a shelf covered with purple velvet. They have never been exposed to the public. What is known is that nine are made of wood and two of stone, and that they probably carry carved crosses.

In March 2019, an Ethiopian delegation asked the director of the British Museum to return it, along with other objects from the sacking of Magdala. The solution being considered is for the British Museum to grant a long-term loan to Ethiopia. But in case of agreement it would be an unusual situation. Normally the objects on loan are examined by the museum curators, both when they leave and when they are returned. In this case, to meet Ethiopian requirements, this could not happen since no one can see the objects except the priests of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.


Sources

The Art Newspaper / Wikipedia.