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Sufragette's son to return holy book to Ethiopia

AFROMET press release 16 September 2003

A holy book is to be returned to Ethiopia 135 years after it was seized by British soldiers in a bloody battle.

The handwritten copy of the Book of Psalms will be taken from the UK back to Addis Ababa later this month by Dr Richard Pankhurst, son of the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst and long-time campaigner for the repatriation of Ethiopian loot.

returned Book of Psalms
The returned Book of Psalms
The return will increase pressure on the British Museum, the Victorian & Albert Museum, Windsor Castle and other UK institutions that still hold on to hundreds of illuminated manuscripts and other pieces of plunder taken at the same battle.

The 300-year-old book written in the ancient Ethiopian language of Ge'ez was part of a huge haul of loot taken in 1868. British troops invaded Ethiopia after Emperor Theodore II imprisoned a number of Western diplomats and missionaries.

The soldiers stormed the Emperor's mountain fortress of Magdala (or Maqdala), defeated his forces and freed the captives. After the battle they loaded 200 mules and 15 elephants with gold crowns, swords, altar slabs and manuscripts before burning Magdala to the ground.

The bulk of the plunder made its way into institutions like the British Museum and Oxford's Bodleian Library. But a large number of smaller items were taken home by individual soldiers and ended up in private collections.

Earlier this year, the copy of the Book of Psalms was spotted in a bookdealer's catalogue by Edinburgh-based members of AFROMET The Association for the Return of the Magdala Ethiopian Treasures (www.afromet.info). It had been put on sale by a private collector.

The seven-inch-square volume was displayed in a leather case, stamped with the words "Taken at Magdala". A label inside described it as "one of the few surviving manuscripts that is not in the British Museum from the enormous looting which took place after the assault on the fortress of Magdala."

Dr Richard Pankhurst with the book
Dr Richard Pankhurst
AFROMET UK has now decided to buy the book for £750 and hand it over to Dr Pankhurst, a member of the Addis Ababa branch of AFROMET.

He will in turn present it to the Institute of Ethiopian Studies for display in their museum in Addis Ababa.

Dr Pankhurst today hailed the return as "hugely significant" for AFROMET's campaign. "Imagine if the UK and US troops currently in Iraq went about looting its museums and holy places," he added.

"The whole world would rise up in indignation to condemn such a cultural crime. All we are trying to do in AFROMET is to seek to apply the same standards to the question of the disposal of the Magdala loot."

The Rev John McLuckie, chairman of AFROMET UK, today called on private collectors across the UK to consider returning any pieces of Magdala loot that they owned.

AFROMET has already had some success tracking down loot in private hands. In 2001, Mr McLuckie himself returned a holy altar slab taken from Magdala that he found hidden in St John's Episcopal Church, Princes Street, Edinburgh, where he worked. Months later, an anonymous collector from London returned an amulet that had been ripped from around Emperor Theodore's neck after he committed suicide at Magdala.

And this July Irish Doctor Dr Ian MacLennan saw another altar slab for sale in a book dealers, bought it for an undisclosed sum and flew into Addis Ababa to hand it over to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. So far, institutions like The British Museum have been less forthcoming.

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