Thursday, January 23, 2020
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Why the British Museum should send the tabots back to Ethiopia

Richard Brooks

Only Ethiopian priests can read them, for starters. Plus, a bid for more women’s sport on TV and 30 years of Garsington Opera

Ethiopian priests carry tabots during the Timket festival of Epiphany, celebrating the baptism of Christ. Photograph: Age Fotostock/Alamy

Hidden in a storeroom in the British Museum for the past 146 years and never displayed are 11 remarkable religious objects. They are called tabots – replica tablets on which the Ten Commandments are written, and which were nicked by the Brits after the battle of Magdala. So sacred are they that they can only be viewed by Ethiopian Orthodox priests. Without wishing to sound facetious, there are not very many such clerics in and around London to see them.

Christianity is the largest religion in Ethiopia, and its people place great value in religious items. I mention this because of the resignation, just announced, of the BM trustee Ahdaf Soueif, best known for her Booker-shortlisted The Map of Love. Egyptian-born Soueif cited two key reasons for her departure: the BP sponsorship and the repatriation of objects. The arts sponsorship issue has been well aired. I have more sympathy for the cause of giving back certain objects from UK museums, particularly those which are of enormous emotional and/or spiritual value to their countries of origin.

Hartwig Fischer, the BM’s director, has told me he is going to Ethiopia later this year, where he will discuss the tabots, while the museum’s chairman, Richard Lambert, says the BM trustees will take a decision on them “within the next six months”, on what would most likely be called a long-term loan . But why not simply make the obvious call, take them out of storage immediately and fly them to Addis Ababa so they can be placed in the relevant churches, permanently?

After the huge success on BBC TV of the Fifa Women’s World Cup (the semi-final was seen by 11.7 million viewers, the largest live audience this year), we have had the Netball World Cup this past week. Not, admittedly, given prime time on BBC One like the footie, but each day had at least two hours live on BBC Two. In the UK, more young women play netball than any other sport, while last year, England won gold at the Commonwealth Games. I’ve been watching a bit on TV this past week and thoroughly enjoyed it. No coincidence that the head of BBC Sport is Barbara Slater and BBC’s director of content is Charlotte Moore – both women. If those posts were occupied by men, I doubt if these sports would have gained nearly as much coverage.

Garsington’s opera season closes on Friday with, unusually, three nights of religious music of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. This has been the company’s 30th year; the early operas were in the gardens of Garsington Manor, but, since 2011, they have been performed in an extraordinary transparent pavilion on the Wormsley Estate in Buckinghamshire, owned by Mark Getty. It has been Garsington’s most successful year, with five-star reviews for The Bartered Bride and The Turn of the Screw. The last three nights will be preceded by cricket matches on an adjoining pitch, built by Mark’s father, the cricket-mad Sir John Paul Getty. The most eagerly fought will be between Garsington and the Royal Opera House. I know who I’ll be supporting.

Source: The Guardian

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