Looted Maqdala Treasures Returned to Ethiopia After 150 Years

A nonprofit foundation purchased the objects, which were seized by British troops in 1868, with the aim of restituting them

Table holding artifacts returned to Ethiopia
Alula Pankhurst, a member of Ethiopia’s National Heritage Restitution Committee, calls the objects' return the “single most significant heritage restitution in Ethiopia’s history.” Embassy of Ethiopia, London

Artifacts including a Bible and an imperial shield seized by British forces during the 1868 Battle of Maqdala are returning to Ethiopia. As the Ethiopian News Agency reports, the Scheherazade Foundation, a private nonprofit group based in the United Kingdom, purchased the objects with the goal of restituting them.

During a presentation at the Athenaeum Club in London on Wednesday, Ethiopian ambassador Teferi Melesse Desta called the objects—acquired through an auction house and a private art dealer—“memorials” that would help the nation mourn the losses caused by the British attack.

“Lives were lost, families separated, traumas inflicted, culture was looted,” he said, as quoted by the Art Newspaper’s Martin Bailey.

In a statement, Alula Pankhurst, a member of Ethiopia’s National Heritage Restitution Committee, calls the objects’ return the “single most significant heritage restitution in Ethiopia’s history.”

The Maqdala conflict began in the early 1860s, when Coptic Christian emperor Tewodros II, angered by the British government’s refusal to support his military campaigns, took several British missionaries and envoys prisoner. In late 1867, the British responded by sending an expedition to rescue the hostages. The invading army killed hundreds of Tewodros’ troops but suffered few casualties. Tewodros committed suicide to escape being taken prisoner.

According to the British Museum, accounts written at the time describe soldiers and released hostages looting Maqdala’s fortress and church. (Upon his ascension to the throne in 1855, Tewodros had established Maqdala, a village in northern Ethiopia, as his kingdom’s seat of power.) Later, many of the stolen objects were auctioned off to raise “prize money” for British troops.

British forces took Tewodros’ 7-year-old son, Prince Alemayehu, home with them, per BBC News. Alemayehu lived in the U.K. until his death in 1879 at age 18. His body remains buried at Windsor Castle despite Ethiopians’ calls for its return.

Looted Maqdala Treasures Returned to Ethiopia After 150 Years
Soldiers looted items from Maqdala’s fortress and church in 1868. Embassy of Ethiopia, London

Pankhurst says he hopes the Scheherazade Foundation’s actions will spur additional restitutions.

“Retaining artifacts, notably human remains such as those of Prince Alemayehu in Windsor Chapel or sacred objects such as the holy Tabot Arks of the Covenant in the British Museum is becoming increasingly anachronistic, irrelevant and embarrassing,” he adds.

In recent years, many European museums have come under increasing pressure to return artifacts stolen from Africa during the 19th century. This April, Germany announced plans to repatriate thousands of Benin Bronzes housed in its museums to Nigeria.

As Daniel Trilling wrote for the Atlantic in 2019, “Museums in the U.K. generally decline to follow suit, claiming that their hands are tied by the law, which forbids them to send valuable objects out of the country. Instead, they point to the benefits of loans and other forms of collaboration.”

Around 900 Benin Bronzes remain in the collections of the British Museum. Both the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum hold a significant number of Maqdala artifacts; these institutions have, historically, resisted calls for looted objects’ return.

Established by British writer Tahir Shah, the Scheherazade Foundation purchased some of the newly restituted items—a leather Coptic Bible and three horn beakers—in June. Auction house Busby had been preparing to sell the items, which were listed at about $970, when the Ethiopian embassy called for the sale’s cancellation, as Lanre Bakare reported for the Guardian at the time. The foundation then arranged to buy the items in a private sale for a few hundred pounds, per the Art Newspaper.

A Brussels art collector sold the foundation an additional group of artifacts—including a cross, a priestly crown, the imperial shield and a talismanic scroll—for several thousand pounds.

The items are set to be returned to Ethiopia shortly after the formation of a new government under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party on October 4. Some will probably enter the collections of the National Museum in Addis Ababa. Others, specifically the religious objects, may be offered to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.