The continent of Africa can boast of being home to several cultural and revered artifacts across the world. Europeans’ sudden interest in the continent which led to the scrambling and partitioning of Africa during the Berlin Conference of 1884, robbed the continent of all these cultural artifacts. The British museum is believed to be home to more than six million artifacts.
Ethiopia has increased pressure on King Charles III to restore the nation’s precious tabot, which stands for the “Ark of the Covenant,” as a result of the international campaign for the return of stolen African treasures. The tabot is hidden inside an alter in London’s Westminster Abbey. A request for the tabot’s restoration could finally be granted more than 150 years after it was taken.
The Ethiopian authorities requested the tabot be returned, as The Art Newspaper reported in July 2018. But Westminster Abbey has rejected all of Ethiopia’s requests. Abune Paulos, the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, went to London in 2007 to personally lobby an Abbey delegate for the restitution of the treasure. But the tabot was not handed back, according to artnews.
The tabot or tablet, is seen as sacrilege by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church since it represents the Ark of the Covenant. At the Battle of Maqdala in 1868, British soldiers looted the tabot along with many other cultural artifacts.
The Maqdala collection was dispersed among the holdings of different Western museums, including the British Museum, as a result of the British raid. Captain George Arbuthnot of the Royal Artillery presented one tabot to the Abbey. Later, architect George Gilbert Scott included it into the plans for an altarpiece in the Henry VII Lady Chapel, where it was seen by guests.
There is legal ambiguity surrounding the process for removing antiquities from Westminster Abbey. Due to the Abbey’s status as a Royal Peculiar, the monarchy has control over its assets. According to The Art Newspaper, King Charles III, the newly crowned British monarch, may have to approve any compensation.
In 2018, a Westminster Abbey spokesman said, “The dean and chapter are very conscious of the sensitivity of the Ethiopian tabot, so steps were taken a number of years ago to ensure that the tabot, which is in a very sacred place, was properly covered and could not be seen by anyone”, the artnews reported.
A representative for the Abbey told the Art Newspaper last month that the Abbey has no plans to change existing arrangements, adding that “there are no current plans [for its return] but the future of the tabot is kept under review.”