Sacred Ethiopian tablet looted by the British at the battle of Maqdala 155 years ago is returned in London church service

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A sacred tablet seized by British troops at the 1868 battle of Maqdala, in Ethiopia, was finally returned yesterday (24 September) in a moving service at a London church. Known as tabots, the holy tablets symbolically represent the Ark of the Covenant for the Ethiopian church. The private restitution of a tabot will now increase pressure on the British Museum, which holds 11 of them, to return these.

Ethiopian Christians believes that tabots should never be seen by anyone other than their clergy, so the British Museum’s holdings are hidden away in a basement storeroom where they cannot be viewed even by their own curators. It is arguably the museum’s only completely “invisible” collection.

The return of the privately owned tabot was held at the church of St Mary of Debre Tsion in Battersea, southwest London. The site was built as an Anglican church but became redundant and was acquired by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in 2010.

The church was completely packed for the return of the tabot, with around 1500 worshippers attending. With the air laden with incense, the wrapped tabot was slowly paraded through the church, accompanied by clerics, drummers and singers. The congregation ululated and chanted creating an electric atmosphere of great joy.

As required, the tabot was not visible, being covered with an ornate piece of cloth. When paraded, it was held aloft by a senior cleric, dressed in a gold-fringed ornate gown, with a silver parasol held above the tabot. It will shortly be returned to Ethiopia, where it is expected to be greeted with similar jubilation.

The tabot was recently spotted on sale online by Jacopo Gnisci, a University College London lecturer in the art of the global south, who has a special interest in Ethiopia.

Gnisci tried to get the seller to return the tabot to Ethiopia, but when this failed he eventually bought it in order to safely return it himself. Initially he felt that it should be returned discreetly, since it is a sacred object which should not be seen.

It was ultimately decided, however, that it would be more appropriate to do this openly, to encourage other foreign holders of tabots to take similar action. The restitution has been organised by the London-based Scheherazade Foundation, which has assisted the return of other looted objects from Maqdala.

The British Museum houses the largest collection of tabots in the UK. Although the storage arrangements are confidential, they are believed to be kept in a highly secured storeroom in the basement of the Bloomsbury complex, as arranged in consultation with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The Art Newspaper understands that the tabots are individually wrapped in cloth and placed on a shelf covered with purple velvet. There they can be visited by the church’s priests.

The British Museum spokesperson says that that its “long-term ambition is to lend the objects to an Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Great Britain where they can be cared for by the clergy within their traditions”. These discussions have gone on for several years, so far without success.

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