The eighth wonder of the world was closed. The attendant told us that this was due to the theft of a sacred artefact from one of the churches. ‘By a tourist,’ he said with feeling. We were standing outside the subterranean red churches of Lalibela in northern Ethiopia. The churches are carved from the rock to a height of more than ten metres and linked by passages, tunnels, arches, yards and trenches dug from the same rock. They are said to have been built within 23 years but stories that they were created overnight by hosts of angels are scarcely less credible, so extraordinary is their beauty and the fact of their construction; four of them are strictly monolithic, attached to the rock only at their bases. Hermits were crawling out of the crevices, toppling skulls and bones and jostling with beggars, priests and tourists on the tiny walkways that rise over the graves of their predecessors.
The removal of the sacred object put me in mind of the sequence of theft and conquest that makes up any African nation’s history. There was the original theft that led to the conquest of the Queen of Sheba by Solomon: I wondered what would have happened if the Queen, the last of the powerful monarchs of the Axumite Empire, on a visit to Jerusalem, had not woken in the night with a terrible thirst and sipped the water forbidden her by King Solomon, peeved by her refusal to sleep with him, and in his own palace, too. He had to make do with her slave girl, but stipulated that the Queen should take nothing from the palace or she would pay the penalty. She scoffed at the idea that he might have anything she’d wish to take. But on quenching her thirst, she was obliged to forfeit her body for what remained of the night. This is why Solomon and Sheba are always depicted back to back on statues, their chins jutting in mutual defiance, or on two sides of the same coin. The issue of that misappropriation was Menelik, who founded the Solomonic dynasty which ruled Ethiopia until the revolution overthrew Haile Selassie in 1974.
Foreigners have always looted from Africa and attempted to justify it by saying that Africans don’t look after their heritage, that they are too ramshackle and careless to be trusted with their own treasures. In a hotel bar the previous night, a world-straddling Buzz Lightyear figure, who for two years had been flying a Cessna 180 around Africa single-handed, had told a story about an attendant at the National Museum in Addis Ababa who, when challenged that the Lucy – the first A. afarensesis australopithecine hominid to be discovered – was a plaster cast, had ushered him to a dusty back room and proudly opened a huge, unlocked box to reveal the real one.
The explorer James Bruce came to Ethiopia in 1769 to look for the source of the Nile and took away with him the Songs of David, Kibre Negest (‘Glory of the Kings’) and the Book of Enoch, which he no doubt considered as souvenirs or going-home presents to himself. As well as being a sacred artefact, the Kibre Negest relates much of Ethiopia’s early history. It was returned to Ethiopia under Queen Victoria. Battle still rages over the Magdala manuscripts, looted, along with gold and silver crosses, by soldiers of a British expeditionary force in 1868, after Sir Robert Napier’s defeat of King Tewodros, who had spent many years collecting them. They are now in the possession of the British Library and the Queen, among others, and there are no plans to return them.