They are hidden holy treasures that have been in the British Museum’s stores for more than 150 years, never on public exhibit and restricted to the public.
Following a new legal opinion and an appeal sponsored by Stephen Fry, author Lemn Sissay, and former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, it is now hoped that Ethiopian tabots looted by the British after the battle of Maqdala in 1868 would be returned to Ethiopia.
The altar tablets, made of wood and stone, are considered by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to be God’s dwelling place on Earth and a depiction of the Ark of the Covenant. Everyone agrees that they have tremendous spiritual and religious significance for Ethiopians.
Fry, Sissay, actor Rupert Everett, and former British ambassador to Ethiopia Sir Harold Walker have all signed a letter to the trustees of the British Museum. It claims that the museum has respected the tabots’ holiness by never displaying them or allowing them to be studied, duplicated, or photographed. “Instead, they are kept in vaults, where they have remained for almost 150 years, unknown to the vast majority of the country’s citizens.”
“We feel that by returning the tabots to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the British Museum has a rare chance to forge an enduring and significant bridge of friendship between Britain and Ethiopia,” the statement reads.
Ethiopia has made several attempts to reclaim the tabots, but the British Museum claims that it is prohibited by the British Museum Act of 1963 from restituting anything in its collection.
Campaigners are seeking a new legal opinion that indicates the tabots can be legally returned, according to them.
The Scheherazade Foundation commissioned Samantha Knights QC to write the opinion, which was seen by the Guardian. It notes that the 1963 legislation contains a clause that provides for the disposal of artifacts that are “unfit to be retained” and can be disposed of “without prejudice to the interests of students.”
The tabots, it claims, fit into this category since they have “no apparent value or relevance to the museum.”
There is no image of them on the webpage, and only a brief explanation. “As a result, they are now, and appear to have always been, handled extremely differently from the rest of the collection, and could rightly be described as ‘unfit to be preserved.’”
In terms of student harm, the text states that no student is permitted to study them.
The museum has eleven tabots, nine of which can be directly attributed to British looting following the Battle of Maqdala in 1868, which occurred after Emperor Tewodros II had seized British captives. More than 500 Ethiopian soldiers were slaughtered, and the emperor chose to commit himself rather than be captured.
Hundreds of items were looted as a result. They can be found in a variety of collections. The V&A, which houses Maqdala artifacts such as a gold crown and a royal bridal gown, has proposed a long-term loan.
“These materials need to be evaluated and dealt with due attention,” the British Museum said in a statement. “More time is required before trustees can look at this.”