Ethiopian Orthodox priests and devotees, who fled the violence in Ethiopia's Tigray region, hold a prayer before sunrise. (Photo by Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP)
Artillery Row

Ethiopia’s sacred tablets must remain in Britain

With thousands dying in Tigray, why is Parliament discussing ancient relics?

The House of Lords has been debating whether the British Museum should return eleven sacred altar tablets that were looted from Ethiopia during the 1868 Maqdala campaign led by Lord Napier.

500,000 Ethiopians may have died in the war

George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman on the March, his last and particularly well researched Flashman novel, dealt with the campaign. After a group of British diplomats was taken prisoner by Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros II, a British expeditionary force laid siege to the emperor’s Maqdala mountain fortress in what was then Abyssinia. The British quickly won, and a two-day auction of the spoils among the troops resulted in a treasure trove of Ethiopian antiquities making its way to Britain. These now comprise the British Museum’s Maqdala Collection, which includes over 80 objects, in addition to 350 manuscripts held by the British Library.

Returning these sorts of items has garnered a lot of press during the past few years, with the vast majority agreeing that they should be given back. The movement has gained momentum amid the context of the societal mea culpa around Empire and colonialism. In practice, things are often a lot more complicated. In the case of the tablets, I don’t think they should go back. Certainly not right now.

There are various arguments being presented by those who are against returning the tablets, ranging from their acquisition not being a clear case of colonial greed (the expedition after all was in response to hostages being taken), to the fact that the items taken had themselves already been looted. Before the expedition, Tewodros had the country combed for the finest manuscripts and religious items to populate a grand church and library he planned to build in Maqdala. In those days you didn’t borrow or ask nicely — Tewodrose certainly didn’t; he had his soldiers push you off the edge of a cliff if you disagreed with him.

Those arguments aren’t relevant right now. The most pressing reason for not returning the tablets is that the British establishment should be discussing and focusing on Ethiopia’s 16-month-long conflict. Instead, the international community has singularly failed to do anything about it, and the UK is one of Ethiopia’s biggest donors.

A team of researchers at Ghent University in Belgium, who have been monitoring the conflict since it began in November 2020, have calculated that up to 500,000 Ethiopians may have died as a result of the war. The estimate includes 50,000 to 100,000 victims of direct killings, 150,000 to 200,000 starvation deaths, and more than 100,000 additional deaths caused by a lack of healthcare access due to the conflict.

Even if the true number is half of that colossal sum (which incidentally is the estimated number of dead from the war in Yemen, not that you’ll hear much from the Lords on that one either), we clearly have a problem that goes beyond misplaced altar tablets.

The nature of Ethiopia’s civil war, riddled with historic grievances, ethnic hatred and myriad scores to settle on all sides, has been particularly brutal. It has included massacres of civilians — with machetes and knives — extrajudicial killings, artillery and air strikes against hospitals, churches and mosques. There has been widespread use of rape as a tool of psychological warfare, including rapes in front of family members and even forced incestuous rape. While all that is going on, the Lords is talking about altar tablets.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is deeply entrenched with the state

The dreadful conflict has also highlighted another inconvenient fact about Ethiopia, which has long been a developmental darling of the West: how dysfunctional Ethiopia’s institutions are, as are many of the politicians and bureaucrats running them. Ethiopia doesn’t have anything near the facilities, or the curating skillsets, to be found in the UK for protecting these sorts of items. Most of them are indeed truly gorgeous while also immensely fragile and vulnerable, as I can report after viewing some of the manuscripts in the bowels of the British Library. I used to visit Ethiopian museums in Addis Ababa and around the country. They are not great the unkind might describe most of them as tragi-comic. Ethiopian culture and history abound in astonishing depth and variety, but some of those who are the most disingenuous at paying lip service to it, or leveraging it to their own advantages, are Ethiopians themselves, especially those in charge.

If it could be guaranteed that these tablets would return to one of the religious institutions from whence they first came, where their spiritual relevance might be truly appreciated — altar tablets are highly sacred objects within the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition because of their role in consecrating a church building — there would be more of a case for returning them. Ironically, this argument takes us back to Tigray, the region on which Ethiopia’s conflict is centred. Given Tewodros’s scouring mission, there is every chance these tablets came from one of Tigray’s fabled cliff-top monasteries, among whose surrounding heights some of those gruesome extrajudicial killings occurred during the past 16 months.

“This is in no way related to the Black Lives Matter movement; nor is it to do with repatriating colonial objects,” a British-Ethiopian commented in the Daily Telegraph’s letters page recently, noting how Ethiopia was never colonised. “These are objects which are of great importance to Ethiopian Orthodox Christians…They have no use in Britain, and are indeed so sacred they may never be seen, but must be kept in storage for perpetuity, at a (surely great) cost to the taxpayer.”

Even this option carries a risk — the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is, like the Russian Orthodox Church, deeply entrenched with the state. Its clergy are often corrupt and greedy, as well as pretty xenophobic, from what I experienced. Ethiopia’s population is highly religious — it’s one of the most religious countries in the world — and the Orthodox clergy are not shy of milking the faithful, most of them dreadfully poor, for alms and more. Unlike the Catholic Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church does not provide schools, or do significant charitable and social care work in communities. After the Ethiopian state, the second biggest provider of schools in Ethiopia is the Catholic Church. You could argue there is a theme here: if you think our religious and institutional organisations have problems…

Ultimately, the attention being given to the tablets by the Lords appears more about gesture politics and misplaced virtue signalling from various politicians and Church of England representatives, while the big things are ignored and unaddressed. Talk in the Lords of the “moral” thing to do over the tablets is frankly absurd, if not insulting, given the moral calamity going on in Ethiopia. Talk from Church of England leaders about the tablets and “profound religious significance” rings hollow after the display by the Church of England during Covid-19 when it feverishly embraced closing down churches, and denying its own parishioners the solace of private prayer in a holy place. Now it is looking at turning many of England’s ancient churches into quasi community centres hosting art shows and the like.

On Easter Monday back in 1868, with the British victorious in the valleys surrounding his mountaintop redoubt and about to launch a final assault, Tewodros bit down on a pistol — a previous present from Queen Victoria — and pulled the trigger. Ethiopia has long been, and currently undeniably is, an extremely violent country, whose leaders have an impeccably consistent track record of sacrificing the welfare and often lives of ordinary Ethiopians for their myopic quest for power — mengist, in Amharic — which trumps all else in the Ethiopian political psyche. A truce of sorts has just occurred in Ethiopia. On 25 March, Tigrayan forces agreed to a “cessation of hostilities”, following the government’s announcement of a truce the day before. Suffice to say, the truce is already looking extremely shaky. The Lords would do well to remember this during its debates.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover