Measuring 180 tons and a bit more than 24 meters (about 76 feet) tall, the stela was already standing on a massive stone base in the ancient capital of Axum when Ethiopia converted to Christianity during the reign of the Ethiopian Emperor Ezana in the mid-forth century AD. It was pulled down and broken during a Muslim uprising in the 16th century. Despite its state of disrepair it, along with five other stelae in the same pre Christian cemetery, was revered by Ethiopians.
Acting on orders from Mussolini, the victorious Italian army took the pieces of the toppled monument to the Ethiopian coast by truck, over a newly constructed road. The stela was then sent by sea to Rome where steel pins and cement were used to rebuild it in front of Mussolini's "Ministry of the Empire", now the FAO building.
1947 treaty terms called for returning the stela and other Ethiopian trophies, and an additional 1997 agreement between Ethiopia and Italy provides the legal framework for its return to Axum. Joint study groups on how to move the monument finally concluded in January of 2001 that the monument would have to be cut into horizontal sections (rather than disassembled on lines of the old breakage.)
There remain severe technical problems in shipping the monument back. It would be easier to move the sliced up stela by air, but only the largest US and Russian military transports can do it. Then major airport expansion would be needed on the Ethiopian end of the flights. Sea shipment is also possible, but, once the pieces are back in Ethiopia, the 1937 road is still the only surface route into Axum, and it is in serious disrepair. Even if the road is rebuilt, moving the massive blocks down into Axum will be difficult: there are many hairpin turns, all on very steep downhill slopes. Some experts have suggested that the stela should be erected somewhere else in Ethiopia, perhaps as the center of a new museum complex, rather than trying to get it back to Axum.
While technical details are being worked, out the stela continues to generate political friction between Ethiopia and Italy.
Axum stela Internet sites:
An Ethiopian site chronicling the Ethiopian nationalist view of efforts to restore the monument: http://WWW.EthiopiaOnline.Net/obelisk/
"The Age" on returning "Fascist Loot": http://www.theage.com.au/news/2001/01/17/FFXQWP6G0IC.html
Renewed Italian pledge to return the stela: http://allafrica.com/stories/200012200311.html
About.com on Axum: http://archaeology.miningco.com/science/archaeology/sitesearch.htm?terms=axum&SUName=archaeology