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From the file

The Lost Ark | What happens when a museum possesses a group of objects so sacred that they can never be seen in public or studied in private – and the original owners want them back?

The Lost Ark

The Lost Ark

What happens when a museum possesses a group of objects so sacred that they can never be seen in public or studied in private – and the original owners want them back?

Date commissioned
1 February 2022

Date published
19 April 2022


Why this story?

Museums all over the world are facing a reckoning about the objects in their collections – where they came from, how they were obtained, and whether it is now time to give them back. Usually, institutions make the case that only they have the expertise and resources to safely preserve and display such treasures and provide access for academic study. Most people will be familiar with the saga of the “Elgin Marbles” which have been in the care of the British Museum for nearly 200 years, and remain one of the most prominent public displays at the museum in Bloomsbury, despite the demands of the Greek government for their return.

But what if none of the usual arguments apply? We became fascinated with the fate of the Ethiopian tabots – a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, preserved in 11 wood and stone plaques. They were looted almost 150 years ago, but the artefacts have such religious significance that they cannot be publicly displayed or privately studied. Yet the museum has long-resisted demands to return the looted treasures.

We wanted to find out: why won’t the museum hand them back? David Taylor, Editor

Transcript

Giles Whittell: You say it’s a small room. Can you describe the room?

Reverend Gebre Georgis Dimtsu: Um, well, there are other items as well. It is a small room, yeah it’s about… neat room, nice room. 

Giles Whittell: Is it like, compared with a garage, is it bigger than

Reverend Dimtsu: No no no. It’s a nice, clear room. 

Giles Whittell: Bigger.

Reverend Dimtsu: Yeah, bigger than that. Yeah. 

We sat down and they brought them, you know, into the desk, and that’s why we have [unclear] saw them.

Giles Whittell: I see. So you’ve seen them, can you describe them? I know that we’re not allowed to look at them, but what, what do they look like?

Reverend Dimtsu: I think they…even for me to describe it to you is not right.

Giles Whittell, narrating: It’s 2004. The Reverend Gebre Georgis Dimtsu is in a British Museum storeroom in Blackfriars, not far from St Paul’s Cathedral, and he’s praying. Most items stored here are kept to be displayed or studied. That is the point of the museum, its basic mission. But not these ones, brought to him at the desk. They’ve never been seen by the public, and they never will be.

These items are sacred, and the British Museum accepts this.

They’re integral to the worship of an entire Christian denomination in Ethiopia. 

They were looted from there 150 years ago.

And, Ethiopia says – has been saying, in fact, for 20 years – they should be returned. 

Reverend Dimtsu: I will really urge the government to return them back to the church. And this is the only right thing to do. Morally, spiritually and also politically as well. 

Politics is the art of the possible, like what the philosopher said. If they return it, it is art of the possible, it is a possible thing to do.

Giles, narrating: This the museum does not accept. The possible is impossible.

This isn’t the first story you will have heard about a museum and the artefacts that it has obtained by brute force or skulduggery. 

Usually, in these cases, the museum will express regret, but carefully explain that it is, nevertheless, the best and most trustworthy custodian of such and such a priceless thing… only it can make sure the object is available for study, or carefully preserved using state-of-the-art techniques. 

But none of those arguments can be used here. Because these objects are out of sight, never to be brought up from the darkness.

I’m Giles Whittell, and this week on the Slow Newscast: a mystery in the era of cultural restitution. A sacred replica of the Ark of the Covenant, preserved in eleven wood and stone plaques – lost to the country that produced them, secreted away. 

[Raiders of the Lost Ark theme

Giles, narrating: And if this is all sounding like something pulled from a Hollywood movie, it’s no surprise. It’s about artefacts so powerful that they’re said to endanger those who abuse them. Relics so hard to handle that they get warehoused, and forgotten.

If this were a film, the bulk of the action would take place a century and a half ago, and we’ll get to that. The mystery, though, is the contemporary part, right now, in London, 2022, in the quiet corridors of one of the world’s great treasure houses, of what used to be called a repository of western civilisation. The mystery is contained in a simple question: why won’t the British Museum hand back the tabots – which cannot be seen, and cannot be studied – despite requests from Ethiopia and mounting pressure from the public?

Alula Pankhurst: The requests so far have been… one could say, ignored.

Giles Whittell: Could they equally just do absolutely nothing?

Lewis McNaught: Certainly at the moment, that’s exactly what they’re doing, absolutely nothing.

Samantha Knights: I mean, what’s also really, really telling is how long they took to tell us they weren’t going to tell us anything. I mean, if they weren’t gonna tell us anything, why not just send us a letter back the week later? 

Giles, narrating: Let’s begin at the beginning, in 1868. In Maqdala, a highland stronghold in the heart of the heart of the Ethiopian Empire. At the time, that empire was also known as Abyssinia. After British forces invaded, the Emperor Tewodros ended his own life with a pistol given to him by Queen Victoria. And Maqdala was ransacked.

Lewis McNaught: It was a travesty and a fury of looting. 

Giles, narrating: This is Lewis McNaught. Half a lifetime ago, McNaught worked in the British Museum’s Department of Egyptian Antiquities, where, he says, he once inadvertently pulled the head off a mummy. Today he’s the managing editor of the online magazine Returning Heritage, which focuses on questions of when and whether museums should send back what you and I might call loot, even if they wouldn’t. In our offices at Tortoise recently, he painted a vivid picture of the 1868 British military expedition…

Lewis McNaught: Fifteen thousand men were sent across to what was then Abyssinia to put down the Emperor Tewodros. It was a punitive expedition in retaliation for the emperor holding hostage the British consul and a number of other people. A disproportionate number of people. A logistical feat for the military to actually take 15,000 people to this mountain fortress in Maqdala. But nevertheless, it was an overwhelming force of British forces that overtook the force of the emperor, who were fighting with sticks and spears and arrows against rockets and missiles and cannon and muskets, obviously by the British Army.

Giles, narrating: It wasn’t just plundering and pillaging. After the battle of Maqdala, British forces seized items that they thought could help cover the cost of their expedition.

Lewis McNaught: Two days after the defeat of the emperor, a prize auction was held.

The purpose of the auction was to raise money to effectively fund the expedition. But present at that auction was the British Museum’s representative, an archaeologist who’d been recruited specifically to actually take items, find items on this British expedition. It was the only time in the British Museum’s history when they employed somebody to go and recover objects, either pay for them or acquire them any other means.

Giles, narrating: The British Army had brought with it an archaeologist to select pillaged items to auction off. A looting curator, if you like. His name was Sir Richard Rivington Holmes. And you’ll see him listed as the – quote – “previous owner” – unquote – of the tabots on the British Museum’s website. On the question of how he came to acquire the sacred plaques, the BM offers this: “During the expedition he purchased a collection of material on behalf of The British Museum.” 

Lewis McNaught: During the Victorian period it was a fairly common process. It happened in Peking with, for example, the burning of the Summer Palace. The forces would plunder, they would collect all their trophies, or at least those they were prepared to admit they plundered. They would put them forward to a prize auction process, and attending that auction would be several people, including other museums. All the money raised from that auction – and it was several thousand pounds, I think it was £5000, from memory – was actually used to offset the cost of the expedition. I emphasise: it was a fairly normal process. But those items themselves were then distributed, purchased for money by museums and other collectors. So we know, for example, that a large number of the items ended up in France. We know they ended up in Germany and other European collections. But the largest amount have ended up between the V&A, the British Museum and a number of other regional, regimental museums around the UK.

Giles, narrating: It’s worth noting that these items weren’t unanimously welcomed to Britain. Two years after Rivington Holmes brought them back, William Gladstone, the prime minister, was one of those afflicted by his conscience. He rose in the House of Commons and said he “deeply lamented, for the same of the country, and for the sake of all concerned, that these articles, to us insignificant, though probably to the Abyssinians sacred and imposing symbols or at least hallowed by association were thought fit to be brought away by a British army.” 

Now Gladstone’s successors might think him rather “woke.” But it’s hard to disagree.

Abune Aregawi: So the Ark is a means for the manifestation of God, according to our context. We bow and pray in front of the Ark because the name of God and the Ten Commandments are written on it, and God shows his mercy through it. 

Giles, narrating: Abune Aregawi is an archbishop in the Orthodox church in Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa.

Abune Aregawi: Therefore that is our treasure, and also has great value for the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo church. They are a treasure trove that cannot be seen, and they are revered by the church so that they may receive the proper service. That’s why we try to return back to Ethiopia.

Giles, narrating: And like many things that aren’t seen, the tabots are also items to be feared.

Alula Pankhurst: They are considered very powerful and holy and frightening and people, and people respect them and bow down and kneel before them. 

Giles, narrating: This is Alula Pankhurst, scholar and member of Ethiopia’s National Heritage Restitution Committee.

Alula Pankhurst: There is a story of a very important nobleman in Addis who had his own chapel with his tabot, and the thief stole, stole the tabot. And as he was running away towards a forest, he was hit by a bolt of lightning. And then the nobleman realised that God didn’t want the tabot, him to keep that in his own prayer house. And so he built a church in the spot, so the tabots are considered very holy and are not to be kept in museums. 

Giles, narrating: Maybe the British Museum deserves some credit for grasping the Tabots’ special status. They can only be seen by members of the Ethiopian clergy, and then only by appointment, which is how Reverend Dimtsu viewed them in 2004. 

Here’s Lewis McNaught again…

Lewis McNaught: Nine entered the collection 1868, directly after the expedition to Abyssinia. And the important thing is that the museum recognized the sanctity of these items. And for that reason, they have given an assurance to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church that they won’t be put on display or photographed or studied. 

Giles Whittell: So that was respected, from the beginning, the fact that they were sacred and they couldn’t be seen or studied by anyone, right from the 1860s onwards? 

Lewis McNaught: They’ve never been exhibited. They have respected that fact right from the beginning. As I said, nine of the tabots we know were recovered from this prize auction. They have entered the museum. The other two we aren’t certain about the provenance of how they arrived. But the important thing is that none of these items, not one of the 11 has ever been exhibited. Not one has ever been photographed. And unbelievably, not one of them has ever been made available for study. Even by the museum’s own curators.

Giles, narrating: The tabots weren’t the only artefacts looted from the expedition in 1868 – far from it. If you’re a museumgoer in the UK, you’re likely to have seen other such items, though they are gradually returning home…

Following a request by the Ethiopian government in 2018, the National Army Museum made a gesture of returning a relic of plaited hair that British forces snipped from the head of the deceased Emperor Tewodros himself. 

[Clip of ceremony at the National Army Museum:“It was a sad chapter in our shared history. A chapter characterised by miscalculation and misjudgement on both sides.”]

Giles, narrating: For a long time, the Victoria and Albert Museum puzzled over what to do with its Ethiopian treasures, and last year it agreed to send back items looted from Maqdala as a long-term loan. More recently, the Scheherazade Foundation and the Ethiopian Embassy in London launched a campaign to buy sixteen more relics thought to have come from the expedition in order to restore them to Ethiopia. Lewis McNaught’s magazine, Returning Heritage, called this “the single most important restitution in Ethiopia’s history.”

All of which makes the case of the tabots all the more conspicuous. None of the returned items hold the cultural or religious significance of the tabots. And none had to be kept away from the general public, or from students, or from scholars. 

Lewis McNaught: The function of the museum is an educational role. It is an educational institution. And to make objects available, that was the function when I worked at the museum. It remains an objective of the British Museum now. And yet these objects clearly do not fall within that category. Since 2002 – this has been going on for 20 years – there have been attempts to persuade the British Museum to release the tabots, and attempt has been made after attempt and letters have gone and been ignored, and it’s been a round – a continuous round – of failure by the Ethiopian authorities and the Ethiopian church. And I feel whenever I mention it to people, people who’ve got no interest in in Ethiopia, people have got no interest in the sort of subjects that I’m interested in, cultural restitution, feel it’s wrong. Feel it’s wrong that the British Museum, a major institution, should behave this way towards another country.

Giles, narrating: Alula Pankhurst participated in meetings with the British Museum alongside the Ethiopian ambassador to the UK this past September. But their message was received, shall we say… tepidly.

Alula Pankhurst: They responded in a very polite British way of saying that the British Museum would duly consider these requests. And they asked if these requests came from both the government and from the clergy, and indeed, there was a letter from the minister of culture, and a letter from the patriarch himself, signed by the patriarch, so these were the highest bodies concerned in the country. And they also asked if this was something that was important to the people, and the ambassador reiterated how significant tabots were and the sense of anger, that this wrong that happened in the 19th Century that could quite easily be set right. And the British government and museums and public have not yet done the right thing in restoring this. All they were willing to concede was that this would be something that would be looked into by the British Museum by the trustees. But as far as we know, the trustees have not been actually discussed this particular case, the case of the tabots.

Giles, narrating: Why not? When it comes to the tabots, the British Museum seems somehow paralysed. Why isn’t it acting? I asked them, of course, and got a prepared statement. The museum said it was – quote – “committed to thorough and open investigation of Maqdala collection histories. And it says it has held – quote – “cordial discussions on future possibilities for collaboration” and will “continue these discussions with the relevant parties.” Unquote. Clearly not with us at Tortoise.

There is, though, the question of the ongoing conflict in Tigray, the civil war that began in late 2020. Is it possible that the tabots would in fact be unsafe in Ethiopia, at a time when we’re hearing of looted cultural artefacts turning up on Ebay? Well in its limited communication, the museum has not mentioned any concerns it might have on that score. So I put the question to Lewis McNaught.

Giles Whittell: In practical terms, how serious a factor do you think it will prove over the next two, three, five years that Ethiopia is at war with itself? 

Lewis McNaught: I think that should be irrelevant to this whole debate. Now I’m aware of the fact that a lot of people will argue that it doesn’t really matter what the conditions are when you return an object to the country, if it belongs to them, if it belongs to Nigeria, if it belongs to Ethiopia, it should be returned regardless of whether there is a civil war. You know, whether they have a museum in fit enough condition and so on and so forth. I believe with the tabots, there is a very strong case that the museum can make that they will be returned to the sanctity and security of the church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It isn’t a case of going, they’re being sent back to a museum where they could be subject to some kind of military intervention, some kind of further plundering and looting, either by their own nationals or by any other nation. They will be returned to the cathedral in Addis Ababa, where they will be sanctified, where they will be honoured and where they will be secure. 

Giles, narrating: The true reason for the refusal to return the tabots – as far as we can gather, with so little communication from the Museum itself – seems to be fear of setting a precedent. That’s how Reverend Dimtsu understands it.

Reverend Dimtsu: These tabots are nothing for the British or for anyone else. But for the Ethiopians they are spiritual relics, they are a very important part of the worship of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. So, we did ask them to be returned. But at that time, they are telling us they cannot do it because others will request. Because they have so many other materials in the British Museum, from Iran, from Greece, from India and so on. So the precedent of returning those Ethiopian tabots would bring another question from others.

Giles, narrating: What the reverend describes is a kind of cultural domino theory. Hand over the Ethiopian tabots, and it’s gone with the Benin Bronzes. Gone with the Parthenon Marbles. Of course, those artefacts are on display – museumgoers might even notice that they’re missing. The tabots aren’t, and never will be. Almost no one knows they’re there, and absolutely no one would miss them.

Giles Whittell: So items that were on display, in the V&A, were returned, but items that are hidden from public view, that cannot be studied or looked at by anyone except you…

Reverend Dimtsu: As a priest, clergy or priest.

Giles Whittell: … are not being returned. Why is that?

Reverend Dimtsu: I don’t know. This is what I mean. Like I said, at that time, they told us, they create precedents. So still, they’re maintaining that kind of statement. For us, for anyone else, the tabots are really like, borrowing your grandma’s clothes. I mean, they don’t fit to anybody. They don’t fit to other, even Christians, only Ethiopian Orthodox Church, because we worship, they are our preferred guidance, preferred relics, you know. So that’s why I was just wondering myself, why are they keeping them for nothing? You know, in Ethiopia, we can use them for our spiritual guidance and for our service in the church and so on. But here, they are kept nothing, for nothing.

Giles, narrating: The decision ultimately rests not in the hands of the director of the British Museum, but with its trustees. 

Lewis McNaught: There’s no doubt that the trustees of the British Museum are selected in part by government and in part by the trustees themselves, but the overall majority of trustees serving on the British Museum’s board are selected and approved by the government. Now, there have been quite a few interventions with the current government to actually remove trustees to prevent them serving second terms of office if they fail to adhere to the government dictate on “wokeism” and decolonisation, which the government deplores. It sees this as something which is “un-British”. 

Giles, narrating: Exhibit one in this file is the government’s refusal last year to reappoint Aminul Hoque, a Bangladeshi-British academic, to the board of trustees of the Royal Maritime Museum after he argued in favour of decolonising school curriculums. And last year, the Museums Association decried government interference in its decolonisation efforts, and a group of leading historical associations warned that such interference – quote – “stifles the capacity of historians to do their work and exerts a wider chilling effect.” Unquote. 

Lewis McNaught: Now, I don’t know what takes place in the British Museum Trustee boardroom, but I am surprised that a number of the trustees whose role in life has been so sensitive and has been built on a reputation of understanding global history, can be so insensitive to something which is so sacred to the Ethiopian nation.

Giles, narrating: The museum is governed by the Museum Act 1963, written mainly for the purpose of keeping articles in its collection. Who would have predicted in 1963 that 60 years later, we’d be living in a time when, as Alula Pankhurst put it, “restitution has come of age”? 

Does that mean the act needs to be rewritten? Perhaps. But in fact, there’s already an exception written into it, for items deemed – quote – “unfit to be retained.” Unquote. That phrase has become the focal point of a legal opinion commissioned by the Scherezade Foundation, a cultural organisation founded by the writer and film-maker Tahir Shah. And the opinion was authored by Samantha Knights.

Samantha Knights: The opinion’s really drilling down to a very specific section of the British Museum Act, 1963, section five. And it’s a section which says the trustees of the British Museum may sell, exchange, give away or otherwise dispose of any object vested in them, and comprised in their collections if, in the opinion of the trustees, the object is unfit to be retained in the collections of the museum and can be disposed of without detriment to the interests of students. And so it was, you know, that honing in specifically on that provision that I looked at. First of all, what is meant by an object being unfit to be retained? And secondly, what is meant by “disposed of without detriment to the interests of students”?

Giles, narrating: Knights resists the notion that the tabots can be lumped in with the Benin Bronzes and the Parthenon Marbles – the fact that they aren’t exhibited, she argues, sets them in a category of their own. That belief is echoed in a letter calling for their restitution. A letter signed by the actors Stephen Fry and Rupert Everett and the poet Lemn Sissay.

Lemn Sissay: Nobody’s trying to ruin somebody else’s party here. Do you know what I mean? Nobody’s trying to do a “smash-and-grab” on the culture of Britain. Nobody’s trying to… trying to undermine the well-meaning people of the past. Nobody’s trying to strip off people’s labels and ranking. You know, nobody’s trying to do that. This is like abuse inside of a family. At some point, somebody has to name the abuser, and somebody has to ask them to either leave the room or pay for what they did.

Samantha Knights: The British Museum historically have always said: “Oh, we can’t return these things because of the British Museum act.” My opinion is just very clearly, and of course, a number of people have signed up to the letter that was sent on behalf of the Foundation to the museum. It simply says, yes, you can, you know, in properly interpreting section five of the British Museum act, absolutely, you could return these.

Giles, narrating: The last time Ethiopia made a formal request for the return of the tabots was three years ago, in 2019. Since then the Museum has been under pressure on all sides to start restitution. Its response has been to batten down the hatches. It’s been a “no” on the Elgin Marbles despite public support for Greece in the UK. It’s been a “no” on the Benin bronzes despite the fact that European museums have started to send them back. And it’s been a “no” to Rapa Nui in the Pacific, despite emotional in-person appeals. 

And it’s been a “no” to all approaches for the tabots, including, on 10 February of this year, a carefully worded “no” to Sam Knight’s legal opinion.

“The Museum welcomes feedback on its areas of work, and relevant staff members have read with interest your client’s advisors’ thoughts on some of the relevant laws. We will keep those on file and will of course give them due consideration in our work alongside our own research, expert opinions and other public contributions.

It is not possible to engage directly in an ongoing informal discussion with external contributors on points of Museum governance. We will not therefore be able to engage in further detailed correspondence with you or your client about this matter, though of course if your client would like us to take further materials into account, we will be happy to add them to the relevant documents we hold on file.

We thank your client for sharing the advice they have received with us so freely, and will continue to follow their work with interest.”

Statement from the British Museum, narrated

Reverend Dimtsu: That is all rubbish.

We can use them in Ethiopia. But here, they are nothing. They don’t fit. They don’t fit to anybody. I mean, no, no one is interested except the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. This is the heritage of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Giles Whittell: Do you think there’s anything in the slippery slope argument, the argument about precedent, that if the tabots were returned, then everybody from Greece and Iran and Rapa Nui…

Reverend Dimtsu: At that time they said, but I can see they are returning some of the relics of Tewodros, the king Tewodros, from the Victoria and Albert Museum. So I… there is a contradiction.

Giles Whittell: They have returned items from the V&A actually, which were perfectly legit to put on public display and so arguably, could have been kept for that reason by the museum, and they haven’t returned items, which, as you argue, have pointed out, can’t be displayed. Haven’t they got themselves in a pickle, there?

Samantha Knights: It seems bizarre, doesn’t it? You’re the British Museum, you’re holding on to these objects, which are sort of cluttering up, if you like, storage space, but you can’t do anything with them. Much more significantly, you are, you know, holding on to objects which have incredible meaning for the church. Why would you cling on in those circumstances, unless you, you know, you haven’t come to terms with British history? The reality for these churches is they can’t function as a proper church without their tabot. It baffles me actually, why the British Museum wouldn’t want to return them. You know, returning them would only enhance, I think, the British Museum’s reputation in the eyes of the rest of the world and in the eyes of Britain.

Giles Whittell: Do you think, in all candour, that the reason they haven’t engaged with any aspect of the legal argument is that they can see it’s an open and shut case? 

Samantha Knights: Well, I mean, it’s, it’s… possibly… I mean, I, you know, I, I don’t think, I think it will be, personally, I think it will be difficult to find faults with the legal analysis view. You might say: “Well, I would say that because it was my legal opinion.” But you know, but I, the legal opinion has also been endorsed by a number of other individuals, including other lawyers. 

Giles Whittell: If you’d been retained to argue the other side of it. What would you have said?

Samantha Knights: [Laughs.] I’m not sure. Because I’m not sure there is another argument. I mean, you could, you could try and, you know, construe “unfit” very, you know, very, very narrowly, but it doesn’t seem to me that that would work in the context of these tabots. 

I just think the public… if you ask an ordinary, you know, the man or woman on the Clapham omnibus, you know, what would they think would be the right thing to do? I just don’t think anybody would come to any other conclusion. 

Giles, narrating: It feels like we’re close to that moment in a retrial when the judge has acknowledged a gross miscarriage of justice but for procedural reasons the prisoner can’t be released. You want to be able to grab someone by the shoulders and yell at them – but the museum, of course, is far too careful to make anyone available for that.

We approached George Osborne, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and chairman of the museum’s trustees. We approached his fellow trustees, professors Mary Beard and Minouche Shafik for a public statement. No dice. 

But – beneath the surface, there are signs that things may be beginning to move. That, in fact, the museum would like to return the tabots, on certain fairly stringent conditions. They’d like to relinquish possession, but not ownership. They’d like to hand the tabots over to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in London, but not Addis Ababa. They haven’t agreed to terms, and frankly, no wonder.

And I’m reminded again of Raiders of the Lost Ark – and those maddening final moments…

How fitting that the film ends with a packing crate being wheeled into a warehouse, its secrets to be secured beneath a padlock until the end of time.

But the story of the tabots doesn’t have to end like that. There is a way to do the right thing, morally, spiritually, politically, as the Reverend Dimtsu sees it. We know this… because it’s been done already.

Lewis McNaught: Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that 20 years ago, one tabot was discovered at the back of a cupboard in an Edinburgh church, and it was discovered by one of the clergy who recognized it because he had studied in Ethiopia.

Giles, narrating: The resolution to this story could have been written back in 2001 with the case of the so-called Edinburgh tabot. So we reached out to the man who found it, who stumbled upon it in a cupboard, and who very promptly returned it to its rightful owners. That man is Father John McLuckie, and he is now the rector of Old St. Paul’s Scottish Episcopal Church.

Father John McLuckie: It was on a shelf and I was just being nosy and looking around to see what was there. And it was in the kind of box that you might normally expect a home communion set to be in, this little leather covered wooden box. So I took it down, expecting to find that and found instead this tabot.

I suppose I was pretty unique in the clergy, had worked in that church and knowing what a tabot was because I’d worked in Ethiopia as a student for a while and I’d been absolutely fascinated by the history, the culture, the spirituality of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. So I knew how important the tabot was and what it was for. Although of course I’d not seen one, because that’s the whole point – you’re not meant to.

One thing I did do to verify its identity was I drew, very, very badly, I drew what was on the surface of it, which is which was an inscription in Ethiopic, which I sent to a friend of mine who I knew could read Ethiopic just to confirm what it was. And he confirmed that it was the dedication of the tabot to to the Saint Gebre Menfes Kidus.

So I was astonished that we had one sitting in our cupboard doing nothing, really, and it was also, to my shame, quite ignorant of the whole story of the Battle of Maqdala. So I researched a bit of that and thought, this just doesn’t belong here. This belongs back home in Ethiopia.

Giles, narrating: “This belongs back home in Ethiopia.” And so that’s where it went. 

Father McLuckie: What we did was they took it because I thought it wasn’t right, there wasn’t the right symbolism for us to be as we were giving it to them because it was theirs. So, so they took it in procession from the sacristy into the church, in the liturgical procession, with the colourful umbrellas, with the drums. And the chanting was, it was. It was very, very emotional moment when it appeared through the door and there was this huge swell of song from the Ethiopian congregation as they greeted the tabot coming into their midst. So it was a beautiful, beautiful moment.

Giles, narrating: Two decades on, hearing Father McLuckie tell the tale, it all seems terribly straightforward. Of course, he has the benefit of 20 years of hindsight. But while some circumstances may have changed, the argument remains the same. 

Father McLuckie: I had no hesitation at all. It just seemed entirely obvious to me that it should go back to where it belonged, especially because this was not just a historical artefact, you know, that would sit in a museum or a cupboard somewhere. It was something that would live in a church that had a living significance for fellow Christians in Ethiopia. So that, to me, just made it absolutely straightforward. There was no question that it should go back.

Lewis McNaught: The fascinating thing is that a national holiday was declared on the day that the tabot was returned. Hundreds of thousands of people lined the road from the airport to the cathedral in Addis Ababa to welcome back this one tabot. Just imagine what it would be like if 11 tabots were returned by the British people to Ethiopia.

Giles, narrating: The more time I spend speaking with people involved in this story, the more of a hall of mirrors it all seems. Is it simply a game of politics, as the Reverend Dimtsu suggested, in which power is expressed by making what could be straightforward, maddeningly labyrinthine instead? It is a story of politics as the art of the impossible?

Father McLuckie: You find a way to make it happen, you know? I mean, that’s the thing that seems, as you say, kind of head scratching to me, you know, this is the obvious thing to do. So find a way to make it possible. There are ways to make it possible.

Giles, narrating: Well, I know how I feel at the end of this. It makes no sense at all. But what do I know? I’m going to give the last word to Lemn Sissay.

Lemn Sissay: The dam’s going to break. There doesn’t have to be lots of collateral damage. In fact, there won’t be. Because the people who are requesting for these sacred goods back, they’re not doing it to damage Britain. They’re doing it to form bonds with Britain for the future. That… that is unavoidable. 

How we got here

Since Tortoise launched in 2019, we have staged several ThinkIns on the contentious subject of museums and the provenance of their collections. 

We heard about the Ethiopian tabots and wanted to understand more – about how they reached London in the first place more than 150 years ago, why they still were being held out of sight, and why the British Museum continued to resist requests for their return. It’s a story of bloody colonial adventurism, targeted looting, bureaucratic paralysis and a growing clamour for change. In our investigation we struggled to hear from the British Museum, but we learned from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church about the significance of the objects. We reported from Addis Ababa and from Edinburgh and discovered that there are solutions to the issue of cultural diplomacy, but only if institutions want to find them. David Taylor, Editor


Further reading

  • The Sarr-Savoy report was published in 2018, calling for the restitution of African works of art.
  • This New York Times piece on the controversy over the Humboldt Forum in Germany looks at restitution alongside other issues raised by the museum.
  • The online magazine Returning Heritage is a great resource for news and education about cultural restitution.
  • This piece for The Art Newspaper details the mountain still to climb on even charting the provenance of looted colonial era objects.

Past reporting

Stolen treasures and contentious history

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