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Westminster Abbey in discussions to return sacred Ethiopian treasure

Westminster Abbey (Dean and Chapter of Westminster)
Westminster Abbey (Dean and Chapter of Westminster)

A sacred Ethiopian tablet looted at the height of empire could be returned to Africa after being held for years in Westminster Abbey.

The Abbey has previously taken a hard line on the future of the artefact – at one point even refusing visiting Ethiopian clerics the opportunity to see it – but now says it is in “helpful and positive conversations with the various interested parties”.

The restitution process will also involve Buckingham Palace who have to be consulted on changes made at the abbey though the final decision lies with the Dean of Westminster.

It would put pressure on the British Museum - which has several similar artefacts known as Tabots – to return their items.

The tablet, which is so sacred to the Ethiopian Orthodox church it cannot be pictured, was part of a haul of treasure taken by British soldiers after storming the Ethiopian fortress at Magdala in 1868.

Author Andrew Heavens, whose book The Prince and the Plunder examines the battle and its aftermath, said the change in the Abbey’s stance is “a huge deal”.

He said: “This would pile pressure on the British Museum to follow suit.

"Tabots are a case apart from the Benin Bronzes and the Elgin Marbles. The abbey and the museum have agreed the tabots are too sacred to study or display. They're not looking at them or showing them or touching them or getting anything out of them.

“Instead, up to now, they have chosen to hide them away. It's a bizarre situation. It makes absolutely no sense to keep these tabots in limbo in the back of an altar or a room in the bowels of the British Museum."

Its potential return is part of a rising tide of restitution which has seen dozens of artefacts returned to their original homes including six Benin Bronzes given to Nigeria by the Horniman Museum and two locks of hair cut from the corpse of Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros returned to Ethiopia by the National Army Museum.

The tabots kept in the British Museum are not displayed and it says its “long-term ambition” is to lend them to a UK-based Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

The museum is currently dealing with its long running – and most high profile restitution claim – around the Parthenon Sculptures – better known as the Elgin Marbles - and has discussed returning them to Greece in exchange for other works of classical antiquity.