(AFP) ADDIS ABABA — A century-old Ethiopian prayer book stolen decades ago was returned to the African nation late Wednesday after the American collector who held it agreed to the restitution.
The precious relic is a psalter written in the liturgical Geez language and illuminated with bright and colourful pictures of saints that belonged to Emperor Menelik, who ruled the country from 1889 to 1913.
Experts say it disappeared three decades ago and was only located recently by Steve Delamarter, a visiting American scholar who made contact with several collectors of Ethiopian items in the United States.
“Gerald Weiner is the largest collector of Ethiopian antiquities in north America. I went to him and said they belonged to Ethiopia,” said Steve Delamarter, professor of Old Testament at US-based George Fox University.
“To my surprise, he thought it was a good idea and decided to act in good will,” he said, before handing the relic to Addis Ababa University officials at a ceremony late Wednesday.
Delamarter said he was still working with the Ethiopian authorities on ways of repatriating all the items in Weiner’s collection.
Officials say thousands of Ethiopian historical objects remain in the hands of foreign collectors and museums in Western countries due to centuries of poor management which led to looting.
Professor Richard Pankhurst, an Addis Ababa-based historian who has long championed the return of stolen Ethiopian antiquities, hailed the psalter’s homecoming but singled out Britain for its lack of cooperation.
Following the defeat of Ethiopian emperor Tewodros by British troops in 1868, victorious soldiers stole an 18-carat gold crown, more than 500 ancient manuscripts and a painting.
Tewodros commmitted suicide and his young son Alemayehu was taken to Britain, where he died 11 years later aged 18.
Only a handful of the artefacts have since been returned, with the rest still housed by well-known museums across Britain.
“It took 15 elephants and 200 mules to bring the loot. It was unjustified and even sacrilegious as they were taken from a church,” Pankhurst said.
Ethiopian President President Girma Wolde-Giorgis has over the past few years written letters to Queen Elizabeth II requesting the repatriation of Prince Alemayehu’s remains and the restitution of the gold crown.
“There have been requests for their return, but the answers from British authorities are always not satisfactory,” Pankhurst said.
Another relic, the Axum Obelisk, was re-erected in its original site two years ago after Rome returned the 150-ton stela plundered by fascist Italy seven decades earlier.