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REUTERS Wolfgang Rattay WR JV.
REUTERS Wolfgang Rattay WR JV.
REUTERS Wolfgang Rattay WR JV.
REUTERS Wolfgang Rattay WR JV.
World News

British Museum asked to return Ethiopian church altar tablets looted and never displayed

by Cara Bentley

The British Museum is facing its latest campaign to return items looted under colonial rule, with demands that Christian altar tablets are returned to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. 

A member of the House of Lords has asked if the Government will intervene and Stephen Fry, Rupert Everett and the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey have all signed a letter asking for them to be returned to where they will be appreciated.
The wooden 'tabots' are square tablets which represent the Ark of the Covenant or the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written. They are considered sacred in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and kept in the Holy of Holies except at festival times. When they are taken outside on procession they are carried on the heads of priests, veiled from public view by richly decorated cloths.

REUTERS Wolfgang Rattay WR / JV.

The British Museum has eleven tabots but they have never been on display. Instead, they have been in storage for over 150 years since they were taken during the battle of Maqdala, in Ethiopia, when British and Indian troops went in to free British captives from Emperor Tewedros II. 

The British Museum website says: "Richard Rivington Holmes, an assistant in the manuscripts department of The British Museum, had accompanied the expedition as an archaeologist. He acquired a number of objects for the British Museum, including around 300 manuscripts which are now housed in the British Library."

They add: "When the Maqdala collections first entered the British Museum in 1868 they stimulated a worldwide interest in the archaeology, history and culture of Ethiopia which has continued to this day."

The matter was raised by Lib Dem peer Lord Jones of Cheltenham this week, who asked the Government if they had plans to request that the Museum 'de-access' the tablets and return them.  

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay responded: "The British Museum operates at arm's length and independently of HM Government. Decisions relating to the care and management of the objects in their collections are therefore a matter for its trustees. This responsibility of the trustees is set out in the museum's legislation, the British Museum Act 1963, which also describes the limited circumstances under which the museum may deaccession items from its collections."



REUTERS Wolfgang Rattay WR / JV.

The group of signatories on the letter to the Museum argue that: "the British Museum has a unique opportunity to build a lasting and meaningful bridge of friendship between Britain and Ethiopia by handing the tabots back to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church."

The British Museum said in a statement: "These documents need to be reviewed and addressed with full consideration, and more time is required before this can be looked at by trustees."

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