Academic buys and returns ancient artefact to Ethiopia in bid to encourage British Museum

Artefacts cannot be displayed because only Ethiopian Orthodox priests should touch or even see them, according to religious tradition

A tabot is designed to sanctify an Ethiopian Orthodox church building, such as this one in London. Getty Images
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A university lecturer who bought a holy tablet online to repatriate to Ethiopia is hoping to inspire the British Museum to return its own collection of similar items which cannot be put on display.

According to the museum, the tabot is “believed by Ethiopian Christians to be the dwelling place of God on Earth, the mercy seat described in the Bible and the representation of the Ark of the Covenant”.

The objects are designed to sanctify and consecrate a church building and every Ethiopian Orthodox building contains at least one tabot.

The British Museum has 11 tabots, which were among thousands of artefacts stolen by British troops during the Battle of Magdala in Ethiopia in 1868.

But as only priests from the church should touch or even see them, according to the orthodox religious traditions, the objects are not on display in the museum but are looked after by a specialist curatorial and conservation team.

The tabots are maintained in consultation with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

It is understood the museum aims to lend the objects to an Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the UK, where they can be cared for by the clergy within their traditions.

University College London lecturer Dr Jacopo Gnisci, who specialises in Ethiopian art, said the British Museum needed guidance from the government to return the artefacts in its possession.

He told The Telegraph: “I am not singling out the British Museum but all institutions must return them back to Ethiopia. It makes absolutely no sense to keep them, as they cannot be put on display.

“My sense is that the British Museum needs to be given a strong political steer from the government for their return.”

In a statement to The National, the British Museum said: “The British Museum’s collection tells the story of human cultural achievement over 2 million years.

“The presence of the tabots in the collection, together with other objects from Ethiopia, demonstrate the breadth and diversity of religious traditions in Ethiopia, including Christianity, Islam and Judaism, as well as other faiths.”

Dr Gnisci, who monitors the black market for sales, estimates there are at least two dozen tabots in the UK.

One even lies within Westminster Abbey, in the altar at Henry VII Lady Chapel. Administrators say although there are no plans to return it, the object’s future is being kept under review.

Dr Gnisci found one advertised online for sale legally in the UK and initially tried, but failed, to persuade the seller to donate it to the Ethiopian community.

So he ended up buying it himself to send back to Ethiopia.

A service was recently held for 1,500 worshippers at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Battersea to commemorate the repatriation of the tabot he bought online.

It will be shipped back to Ethiopia in the coming weeks.

Last week, The National revealed how the British Museum bought an ancient Egyptian artefact from a dealer with a conviction for smuggling antiquities out of the country.

The museum bought the shabti, a figurine found in many ancient Egyptian tombs, from Mousa Khouli, also known as Morris Khouli, who runs an auction house in New York.

It told The National the artefact was currently the subject of its co-operation with an investigation by US authorities. It said the nature of its assistance to the US authorities was “ongoing”.

Mr Khouli previously pleaded guilty to buying and smuggling Egyptian antiquities, including coffins, funerary boats and limestone figures, the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York said.

He smuggled them into the US by making false declarations to customs about the country of origin and value of the items, prosecutors said, in 2012.

US authorities this year revealed 77 antiquities seized from Mr Khouli in 2012, along with the Egyptian artefacts, had been returned to Yemen.

The British Museum was recently embroiled in scandal after it was revealed 2,000 artefacts had been stolen from the institution over a “significant” period of time, leading to the resignation of its chairman Hartwig Fischer.

Updated: October 03, 2023, 7:59 AM