The Question of the "Westminster Abbey" Tabot; an Urgent Call for Restitution

By Professor Richard Pankhurst
Oct. 17 2010

It has recently come to light that the loot from Emperor Tewodros's capital at Maqdala, seized by British troops in 1868, included "at least fifteen" Tabots, or altar slabs, each recalling the Biblical Ark of the Covenant.

This startling discovery has been made by a British priest, the Rev. John McLuckie, who has long been concerned with the booty looted from Maqdala, and as a Chairman of the British branch of AFROMET, the Association for the Return of Maqdala Ethiopian Treasures, is committed to their return to Ethiopia. McLuckie it was who in 2002 discovered an Ethiopian Tabot in a cupboard of St John's Church in Edinburgh church where he was officiating. He it was who arranged for this Tabot's immediate repatriation to Ethiopia.

The Tabot in question was duly flown by Ethiopian Airlines from London to Addis Ababa – with church services for it in both capitals. On the Tabot's arrival in Addis Ababs it is said that "almost a million" citizens flocked to the airport and to the road leading to Sellasie Cathedral, to welcome it. There was much, not to be forgotten, rejoicing in the Ethiopian capital.


McLuckie has now highlighted another remarkable – and astonishing – fact: that another Ethiopian Tabot is in the possession of Westminster Abbey, in London, where, contrary to Ethiopian custom, it has long been on public view, or display!

Protesting at this act of vandalism, and at the Abbey's high-handed insensitivity towards a fellow Christian Church, McLuckie has been interviewed by Dalya Alberge of the British newspaper, The Guardian. Her article, which also appeared in the London Sunday weekly, The Observer, quotes McLuckie as saying the Abbey's retention of the Ethiopian Tabot is: "completely unacceptable", and, turning to the looting of Maqdala, he adds:

"Sacrilege would not be too strong a word. It's loot, taken violently and inappropriately in the first place. A Tabot is a very holy object; no one [in Ethiopia] can see it apart from priests. Westminster Abbey is one of the most visited sites in London. To have it [the Tabot] on public display there is an offence to Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. For one Christian church to refuse it [the repatriation of the Tabot] to another seems profoundly wrong. It is an extraordinary act of arrogance. Returning it to Ethiopia would be an act of good will. There's no good reason for the Abbey to have it. More importantly it doesn’t belong to them"[the Abbey].

Strong words, dear reader, on any showing!


McLuckie's indignant words did not fall on deaf ears. Stephen Bell, a notable historian of Ethiopia and a prominent member of the London-based Anglo-Ethiopian Society, at once wrote to the newspaper in support of the clergyman's stance. He declared that the Tabot was an important, almost a defining, feature of Ethiopian Christianity, and one which harked back to the ancient Judaism of the Old Testament. He explained that it was the Tabot – or Tabots - in any church that made that church holy, and that a church building deprived of its Tabot – or Tabots - ceased to be considered holy.

Bell went on to observe that the Abbey's public display of this article of loot, held as holy by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, was an act of insensitivity towards a fellow Christian Church. He agreed with McLuckie that the Abbey's duty was to effect the Tabot's immediate repatriation.

A well-known Ethiopian priest, Abba Gebre Giorgis, of St Gabriel's Ethiopian Orthodox church in north-west London, was quoted in Dalya Alberge's article as stating, "A Tabot is of no use for Westminster Abbey. We use it. It is ours, not theirs. They know that".

The Guardian/Observer article also quoted the present writer as declaring that Emperor Tewodros, or Theodore, as he was often called abroad, had "committed suicide [at Maqdala] rather than be taken as prisoner by the British army... His body was then set upon by souvenir-seekers" – after which his palace and the great church of Medhane Alem, which he had built, were both completely stripped of their treasures. These included icons, crosses, and close to a thousand manuscripts, which were carried away on fifteen elephants and some 200 mules. Some loot.


In the course of her investigations Dalya Alberge has learnt that the Rev. John McLuckie spent much of the last year negotiating "behind the scenes for the Tabot's return". At one point he was "astonished" to hear that the Dean's office had declared that "the Abbey will not be returning the Tabot". An official Abbey spokesman, however, later commented: "We've never said we're not going to return it".

Clearly some hesitation, dear reader, in Abbey circles.


AFROMET's position on the Abbey's Tabot's return is on the other hand far from ambiguous. The organistion applauds McLuckie's principled stand, first seen with his success in achieving the return to Ethiopia of the Edinburgh Tabot. We feel that the Westminster Abbey Tabot likewise rightfully belongs to Ethiopia, the country whose people fashioned it, and held it sacred. We believe that Westminster Abbey should prevaricate no longer .It should, we feel, follow the example of St John's church in Edinburgh whose congregation, dear reader, opted in 2002 for the course of Justice.