Fifteen elephants and two hundred mules were needed to tote the treasure of Maqdala. In 1868, a British expeditionary force laid siege to the mountain fortress of Emperor Tewodros II in what was then Abyssinia. Hundreds of magisterial manuscripts and countless royal and religious relics were plundered from churches and the defeated ruler’s palace. Among the items looted was a golden Ethiopian Orthodox Crown alloyed with silver and copper with fine filigree work and gorgeous glass beads. Constructed of an inner raised domed cylinder, with green fabric between the embossed tiers, the crown is completed with images of the Apostles. Once believed to be the royal crown of the Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros II himself, recent scholarship now suggests that it was probably commissioned in the 1740s by the Empress Mentewwab and her son King Iyyasu II and was given as a gift to a church in Gondar, along with a golden chalice. The expedition started from the camp at Senafe. The advancing British forces travelled west of Lake Ashangi through the Wajirat Mountains and across the Wadla plateau aided by their diplomatic agreements with the native population, local potentates, and provincial princes. The British arrived with 12,000 troops. The field force included the 3rd Prince of Wales’s Dragoon Guards; the 4th King’s Own Regiment of Foot; 44 trained elephants carrying their guns that joined the expedition on the plain at Talanta 12 miles from Magdala; the 10th Regt of Bengal Cavalry, Lancers and the 2nd Bombay Native Infantry, Grenadier. After the decimation and the marauding of the fortress, the city was set on fire. It burnt like Castries. Emperor Tewodros II, committed suicide with a musket that was gifted to him by Queen Victoria. His body was burnt on a funeral pyre by priests and the ashes buried inside the church. A grand military review was held but no written list was ever made of the countless items sacked in the frenzy. The stolen objects, cultural artefacts and sacred relics found their way into state and private collections, family possessions, and in the hands of ordinary soldiers. The books and manuscripts went to the British Museum, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, while a few went to the Royal Library in Windsor Castle and others to smaller British collections. Other stolen crowns and crosses ended up in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Army Museum.
Among the treasures stolen were a number of tabots or ‘Tables of the Law’ six inches square and made from marble or sacred acacia wood. Tabots are kept in ornate casements to hide them from public view. A tabot is a replica of the Ten Commandments. They are unveiled in an elaborate ceremony that mirrors King David leading a procession of worshipers with castanets dancing before the Ark as recorded in Chapter 6 of 2 Samuel. Whenever a tabot is brought out- it is swathed in coloured cloths and carried on the head of a priest. As it appears in the doorway, the congregation raise a prolonged and piercing cry of joy. When the tabot is exposed- supplicants fall to the floor and pray. In this moment the tabot remains motionless beneath coloured canopies as a group of cantors perform a liturgical Abyssinian ritual. The shrine is then circled slowly three times in a procession headed by the tabot in a counter-clockwise direction and then the tabot is returned to the inner sanctum.
After the defeat of Tewodros II, his son Prince Alemayehu was taken to England. He was presented to Queen Victoria. The young prince became increasingly lonely and depressed during this time. He died at the age of 19 and was buried near the Royal Chapel in Windsor with a funeral plaque placed to his memory by Queen Victoria. In 1924, the Empress Zawditu was given one of the two stolen crowns of Tewodros II but the most impressive one was retained by the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Benin Bronzes that adorned the royal palace of the Oba; The Rosetta Stone with the same inscription carved in three columns in three languages: Greek, hieroglyphs and demotic Egyptian during the reign of Pharaoh Ptolemy V in 196 BC; The Bangwa Queen sculpture from Cameroon that was auctioned at Sotheby’s for $3.4m and the Maqdala treasures are all waiting to be returned. In the 1960s, Queen Elizabeth II returned Tewodros’ royal cap and seal to Emperor Haile Selassie during a state visit to Ethiopia.
There have been courageous attempts by ordinary people to return the stolen treasures of Maqdala. Ras Seymour Mclean- the London Chaplain of the Ethiopian World Federation was a Jamaican born Londoner. He was jailed in the 1980s for stealing over 2, 000 Ethiopian manuscripts from British collections which he intended to return to Ethiopia. He is immortalized in the film- ‘The Book Liberator’. During the invasion of Iraq, 15,000 artefacts were stolen from Baghdad and sold on eBay. In Syria today the sanctimonious and pious ISIL Muslims made US$200 million a year from the sale of stolen antiquities.
During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Viktor Sarianidi found a hoard of crowns, daggers, medallions and coins. The 22,000 pieces of gold he found in a first-century burial ground vanished until 2006 when a mysterious group called the ‘key holders’ revealed its whereabouts.