Ethiopia calls on Westminster Abbey to return looted tablet

The Ethiopian government has called for the return of a sacred tablet that was looted and is now sealed inside an altar in Westminster Abbey in London.

Known as a tabot, the object is said to represent the Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Commandments. In Ethiopa the tabot, made from stone or wood, is sacred and must be covered with only priests allowed to see them.

Battle of Maqdala

The tabot at Westminster Abbey’s was looted during the battle of Maqdala (formerly Magdala) in 1868, when British troops attacked the army of the then Ethiopian emperor Tewodros II.

It was donated to the abbey by Captain George Arbuthnot from the Royal Artillery on his return to England.

Although Anglican churches and cathedrals have a system for deaccessioning furnishing, Westminster is Royal Peculiar which means it is under the monarch’s jurisdiction. The return of the tabot may therefore require the blessing of the Queen.

Hailemichael Aberra, the Ethiopian Ambassador in London told The Art Newspaper: “We are urging all those who hold items looted from Ethiopia to return them. This includes the tabot held at Westminster Abbey.”

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No plans

However, a spokesman for the abbey said they had made arrangements around the “sensitivity” surrounding the tabot several years ago to ensure it was “properly covered” and not visible to anyone. He added that the abbey has “no plans to change these arrangements”.

In 2002, St John the Evangelist church in Edinburgh returned a tabot that had been found in a cupboard. On its arrival in Ethiopia a celebration was held to mark its return.

And just recently the Victoria & Albert Museum announced it was looking again at the origins of its artefacts.

In a post to mark their Maqdala 1868 display which went on show in April the director of the museum, Tristram Hunt wrote in a blog post: “Museums have a global responsibility to better understand their collections, to more fully uncover the histories and the stories behind their objects, and to reveal the people and societies that shaped their journeys.

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“To this end, we want to better reflect on the history of these artefacts in our collection – tracing their origins and then confronting the difficult and complex issues which arise.”

Mr Hunt suggested a long-term loan of the looted Ethiopian artefacts. The Ethiopian government welcomed Hunt’s offer.

This latest call for restitution of the tabot also calls into question the British Museum’s stance on the Elgin Marbles. The Greek government has long called for their return and in an interview with the Greek newspaper Ta Nea, in June,  Jeremy Corbyn said if he were Prime Minister he would open negotiations for the return to Athens of what are also known as the Parthenon Scultpures.

Read more:

 V&A Museum offers to return looted Ethiopian Magdala treasures

Jeremy Corbyn tells Greek newspaper he would return the British Museum’s Elgin Marbles to Greece

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