Westminster Abbey Nods to Restitution: Sacred Tablet Set to Return to Ethiopia
Edited by : Gezahegn Mekonnen Demissie -2/20/2024
In a groundbreaking move, Westminster Abbey has signaled its intent to return a sacred tablet to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, reigniting discussions on restitution claims echoing from the East African nation. The revered artifact, known as a tabot—a flat, blackened wooden piece intricately inscribed to symbolize the Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Commandments—has resided within the Abbey's walls since British forces brought it back from the Battle of Maqdala in 1868, where it was looted. Reported first by the Art Newspaper, this decision paves the way for the tabot's long-awaited journey back to its Ethiopian origins, 156 years after its removal. A spokesperson for Westminster Abbey remarked, "The Dean and Chapter has decided in principle that it would be appropriate to return the Ethiopian tabot to the Ethiopian church." Amid ongoing deliberations with representatives of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Abbey is contemplating the logistics of this complex process, acknowledging it may take time. Notably, as Westminster Abbey operates under the monarch's jurisdiction, King Charles may need to sanction the tabot's return. While the catalyst behind this change remains undisclosed, mounting pressure on European institutions to address colonial-era acquisitions may have influenced the decision. Instances like the return of Benin bronzes by British institutions underscore this growing sentiment. This bold step by Westminster Abbey heightens scrutiny on the British Museum, which houses 11 tabots, accessible to Ethiopian Orthodox priests yet not displayed. The museum's stance of eventually lending them to UK-based Ethiopian churches faces skepticism due to prohibitive insurance costs, as highlighted by Reverend Gebre Georgis Dimtsu of the Debre Bisrat St Gabriel church in east London. Ethiopia's fervent pleas for repatriation have found resonance before, notably when a tabot discovered in an Edinburgh church cupboard was swiftly returned 23 years ago, evoking jubilation and affirming the nation's enduring quest for cultural restitution.