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Originally published Wednesday, December 28, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Obelisk, new finds unleash debate in Ethiopia

Ato Gebrmedihin, who estimates his age at about 90, remembers when Italy's invading army in 1937 looted this ancient city's 1,700-year-old...

The Washington Post

AKSUM, Ethiopia — Ato Gebrmedihin, who estimates his age at about 90, remembers when Italy's invading army in 1937 looted this ancient city's 1,700-year-old, intricately carved obelisk, on the orders of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who wanted to mark his brief occupation of Ethiopia.

"Their van kept breaking down as they tried to rush to the airport with our heavy monument," the gray-bearded Gebrmedihin recalled with a chuckle. "But they eventually fixed the truck. Then they took our stele away."

Earlier this year, the 180-ton, 80-foot granite obelisk — a tombstone and monument to ancient rulers — was returned from a square in central Rome and flown in three parts to this northern town. A national holiday was proclaimed.

It was a triumphant moment, a belated boost to historical pride on a continent where antiquities were often plundered by colonial powers. But today, the dismembered obelisk still waits in two metal shacks, covered with blankets and a tarp, while residents debate how much of the present they are willing to disturb to recover Ethiopia's distant past.

While investigating a proposed site to erect the obelisk, archaeologists using high-tech imaging discovered a network of underground royal tombs. The discovery of more ancient artifacts has launched renewed interest in Aksum, a powerful kingdom that ruled the Horn of Africa from the 1st to the 6th century A.D. and was one of the four great civilizations at that time, alongside Rome, China and Persia.

But the historical finds have led to a confrontation with modern community concerns. In recent weeks, community meetings have been held in which residents were asked whether they would agree to vacate their property so historians could dig under their huts and through their farms.

Ethiopia, one of the world's poorest and least developed nations, is believed to contain some of civilization's oldest archaeological troves under its rocky soil. Experts estimate that less than 7 percent of these artifacts have been found, meaning that Ethiopia could be on the brink of the same kind of major archaeological discoveries that began in late 19th-century Greece or 1920s Egypt.

In 1980, Aksum was proclaimed a world heritage site by UNESCO, which called it "one of the last great civilizations of antiquity to be revealed to modern knowledge."

Aksum is also widely believed to have been one of the first places in the world to adopt Christianity after the Middle East and is an important site of pilgrimages in the Christian world, according to Giorghis and other experts.

When day laborers in 1971 began constructing a road, they kept hitting what seemed like a giant slab of granite. When they tried to move it, they discovered a 4th- or 5th-century tomb with several chambers that is now called the Tomb of the False Door.

A decade later, according to local officials, three farmers happened upon a large stone tablet, engraved in 330 A.D. in the ancient languages of Sabean and Ge'ez, as well as Greek, that contained announcements by a king warning peasants to pay taxes. The tablet is now kept in a padlocked stone shack and guarded by a small boy.

Fasil Giorghis, an Ethiopian architect, leads a team of archaeologists and historians are working in Aksum on a project, funded by part of a $5 million World Bank loan, to upgrade the conditions of the artifacts that have been found. They are also trying to help the impoverished local population benefit from the discoveries and the tourism that they bring.

Around Aksum, the donkey is the prevailing mode of transportation, and farming is still done with ancient wooden tools like those found in museum cases. Life carries on much the way it might have 2,000 years ago, with women hand-washing clothes and collecting water, and men working the soil for beans and barley.

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