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The return to Ethiopia of a 400-year-old tabot, a sacred replica of the Ark of the Covenant, sparked celebrations in the traditionally Orthodox nation on the Horn of Africa in February. It also rekindled hopes that public opinion will force British leaders to return hundreds of sacred items plundered in 1868.

"These treasures are some of the most important items in Ethiopian history," Endrias Eshete, chairman of the Association for the Return of Magdala Ethiopian Treasures (AFROMET), said. He said Britain's refusal to hand over the treasures "would be the equivalent of Ethiopia refusing to hand over the British crown jewels."

British forces attacked the Ethiopian capital of Magdala in 1868. Victorious soldiers and officers looted more than 400 priceless artifacts from Orthodox churches, including many carved wooden tabots, which are about six inches square and modeled after the biblical Ark of the Covenant. According to Ethiopian tradition, the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba bore a son whose father was King Solomon. The son swapped the Ark with a full-size replica and brought it home after a visit to the Jerusalem temple, the legend says. The Orthodox believe that the Ark remains there, under Orthodox protection, to this day (CT, June 14, 1999, p. 58).

Italian soldiers looted Ethiopia's tallest obelisk from Axum in 1937. More than 1,700 years old, the obelisk stills occupies a prominent spot in Rome. Italian officials have so far reneged on two promises to return the 79-foot, 200-ton piece of granite.

February's raucous celebration over the tabot on the streets of Addis Ababa briefly moved the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) back to center stage in Ethiopia's national life. The EOC, once the state church, now claims 57 percent of ...

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Ethiopia: Returning a Tabot
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April 22, 2002

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