-- On January 26, 1887, a column of 500 men, commanded by Lt. Col. De Cristoforis, left Moncullo to escort provisions for the fort at Saati, but near the Dogali hills it was attacked by the Abyssinians of Ras Alula. The column withdrew, fighting, to the high ground, where it was surrounded. The Italians resisted for several hours until all fell; some eighty wounded, left for dead by the enemy, were saved by a relief column which arrived on the 27th from Massawa.
Thus the official report that succinctly described the initiation of the long and painful withdrawal of Italian colonial forces from 19th century Ethiopia. The Italian commanders never were to realize that Italy's colonial rivals had armed the Ethiopian tribes to the teeth with the best available modern weapons and had trained them well in their use. The number of Italian troops in Ethiopia peaked at 25,000, and they had to face hundreds of thousands of well-armed, if somewhat undisciplined and fragmented, tribal militias. Better intelligence might have made the retreat more manageable, but it would not have changed the final result. Unless Italy could transport perhaps another two hundred thousand troops to the theatre, the colonial effort was doomed from the start.
But it was the initial massacre at Dogali that was the real shock. A country in mourning raised a memorial, a rare red granite obelisk newly recovered from the excavations on the site of the old Roman temple of Isis near the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. The names of the fallen at Dogali were carved into a fresh granite base and the whole was put on an artificial rise in front of the 20-something-year-old Termini Railroad Station. The dedication ceremony took place on June 5, 1887 and the Piazza in which it stood was renamed in their honor as the Piazza Cinquecento.
By 1927, however, worse shocks had come and gone and a replacement Termini Station was under construction. The nation also was not in the mood to remember defeats: new conquests were already being planned. And so, with little fanfare, the monument was moved from the center of Piazza Cinquecento to its present location in a tiny triangular park across the street from the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (Museo Nazionale Romano) on Largo Villa Peretti. It was rehabilitated during Mussolini's colonial phase and, in 1936, was decorated with a bronze statue of a Lion plundered from Addis Ababa, the "Lion of Judah". The lion was returned, and the monument again slipped into obscurity after World War II.
On the short side of the triangular park, facing the Museum, all you can see is a modern "Casino" selling coffee, snacks, and lottery tickets. Along one side of the triangle the seven-foot-high unbroken row of billboards of the kind that disfigure so many of Rome's fine avenues has finally been removed. The other side is completely blocked and boxed in by a permanent array of tin market stalls of "antiquarian book sellers" who seem to have many more porno videotapes on display than they have old books.
The park is clean, clipped, and watered. Even without the billboards, the memorial is partially walled in and hidden, but to that extent it is also somewhat isolated from the noise and bustle of Rome's rail, bus, and taxi hub. At least the quiet is appropriate for the memorial: remember it is not a monumental celebration of grand events, but rather a memento mori.
The obelisk is one of an almost perfectly matched pair from the series of obelisks that decorated the front of the Temple of Isis (Iseum) located in the Imperial Roman Campus Martius. It was recovered by the great 19th century master Roman archeologist, Rodolfo Lanciani, on June 17, 1883. Lanciani remarked in his account of the Iseum discoveries that the obelisk and other important finds in the area had been ignored in earlier "mining" excavations in the area: the stone was too hard to be reworked easily and was not suitable as raw material for late-medieval and early-renaissance lime-kilns.
[The other obelisk of the pair was recovered five hundred years earlier (1374) and still stands atop he fountain in front of the Pantheon. The two 9.5 meter obelisks were originally erected by Ramses 2 at the temple of the Sun in Heliopolis near Assuan in about 1300 BC and are thought to have been imported to Rome by Domitian to adorn the Iseum. Another Iseum obelisk is mounted on the back of Bernini's elephant in front of S. Maria Sopra minerva, a fourth is atop his Four Rivers Fountain in Piazza Navonna, and a fifth is in the Boboli Gardens in Florence. The Boboli obelisk was once in the garden facing the logia of Villa Medici in Rome, but it was moved to Florence when the Medici needed garden ornaments there in 1790: a copy that they commissioned now stands in the Rome Villa Medici garden.]
A modern Western account of the late 19th century victories of the Ethiopians: http://www.thehistorynet.com/MilitaryHistory/articles/1997/10972_text.htm
A modern Ethiopian view of what occurred at Dogali: http://archives.geez.org/AddisTribune/Archives/1999/12/31-12-99/Doga.htm
Three short descriptions of the Monument: http://www.italycyberguide.com/Geography/cities/rome2000/F15.htm and http://members.aol.com/Sokamoto31/terme.htm and http://egipto.com/obeliscos/dogali2.html
Imperialist Appropriations of Egyptian Obelisks -- a modern scholarly Egyptian view: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/archaeology/events/conferences/enco/Napoleon/Hassan.htm
Lanciani's own description of the Iseum excavations -- the Obelisk discovery is in the fifth paragraph: http://www.ukans.edu/history/index/europe/ancient_rome/E/Gazetteer/Places/Europe/Italy/Lazio/Roma/Rome/.Texts/Lanciani/LANPAC/2*.html#sec20
P.S. 1: To most Italians, "cinquecento" simply means the 1500's, that is, the 16th century. In Florence, "il Cinquecento" also refers to "the 500" elected notables who comprised the ruling Signoria in the early 16th century.
P.S. 2: Although there was long-term anti-Egyptian sentiment in Rome (a combination of reaction to Cleopatra, wheat-envy, and simple racism) the Cult of Isis flourished for a long time. Ancient Romans identified Isis with the grain and harvest goddess, Ceres. Isis worship, along with Mithraism, was eventually crushed by Christianity.
P.S. 3: For an account of
the Custer defeat at Little Big Horn, 11 years before Dogali, go to