A Sacred Ethiopian Tablet, Looted by the British at the Battle of Maqdala, Is Restituted

A sacred tablet that was stolen by British troops during the 1868 battle of Maqdala in Ethiopia was restituted in a service at a church in London on Monday, the Art Newspaper reports. Also known as a tabot, the object is a symbolic representation of the Ark of the Covenant for the Ethiopian Christian church.

The privately owned tabot was returned at St Mary of Debre Tsion in Battersea. Formerly an Anglican church, it was acquired by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in 2010.

Only clergy members are allowed to see the tabots, according to Ethiopian Christian belief. As such, the tabot was wrapped in an ornate cloth and presented to a crowd of roughly 1,500 attendees. It is expected to return to Ethiopia.

Jacopo Gnisci, a University College of London lecturer, had spotted the tabot in an online sale. When he failed to convince the seller to return it to Ethiopia, he purchased the tabot with the goal of safely returning it. The restitution was organized by London’s Scheherazade Foundation.

The successful restitution of this tabot could lead to greater scrutiny directed toward the British Museum, which holds 11 similar objects in its collection, the largest holdings of its kind in the UK.

Per tradition, the British Museum tabots are hidden in a highly secure basement storeroom, where even the curators cannot view them. The church’s priests, however, are allowed to see them, with the future goal of lending them to an Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Great Britain.