Washington Post -- Ato Gebrmedihin, who estimates his age at about 90, remembers when Italy's invading army in 1937 looted this ancient city's 1,700-year-old, intricately carved obelisk, on the orders of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who wanted to mark his brief occupation of Ethiopia.
"Their van kept breaking down as they tried to rush to the airport with our heavy monument," the gray-bearded Gebrmedihin recalled with a chuckle. "But they eventually fixed the truck. Then they took our stele away."
Earlier this year, the 180-ton, 80-foot granite obelisk -- a tombstone and monument to ancient rulers -- was returned from a square in central Rome and flown in three parts to this northern town. A national holiday was proclaimed.
"We danced in the streets and threw coins," Gebrmedihin said.
It was a triumphant moment, a belated boost to historical pride on a continent where antiquities were often plundered by colonial powers. But today, the dismembered obelisk still waits in two metal shacks, covered with blankets and a tarp, while residents debate how much of the present they are willing to disturb in order to recover Ethiopia's distant past.
While investigating a proposed site to erect the obelisk, archaeologists using high-tech imaging equipment discovered a major network of underground royal tombs. The discovery of more ancient artifacts has launched renewed interest in Aksum, a powerful kingdom that ruled the Horn of Africa from the 1st to the 6th century A.D. and was one of the four great civilizations at that time, alongside Rome, China and Persia.
But the historical finds have led to a confrontation with modern community concerns. In recent weeks, community meetings have been held in which residents were asked whether they would agree to vacate their property so historians could dig under their huts and through their farms.
Ethiopia, one of the world's poorest and least developed nations, is believed to contain some of civilization's oldest archaeological troves under its rocky soil. Experts estimate that less than 7 percent of these artifacts have been found, meaning that Ethiopia could be on the brink of the same kind of major archaeological discoveries that began in late 19th-century Greece or 1920s Egypt.
"Aksum is one of the least known civilizations in the world," said Fasil Giorghis, an Ethiopian architect and leader of a team of archaeologists and historians who are working in Aksum, as he hunched over reams of drawings in his office. "There are layers and layers of buildings and history here. There is major work to be done here. It's an exciting thing for our country."
In 1980, Aksum was proclaimed a world heritage site by UNESCO, which called it "one of the last great civilizations of antiquity to be revealed to modern knowledge."
Aksum's wealth and architectural achievements were recorded in Greek and Arab literature of that era. Aksum is also widely believed to have been one of the first places in the world to adopt Christianity after the Middle East and is an important site of pilgrimages in the Christian world, according to Giorghis and other experts.
But in recent decades, poor farmers here have been more likely than archaeologists to find ancient artifacts.
When day laborers in 1971 began constructing a road, they kept hitting what seemed like a giant slab of granite. When they tried to move it, they discovered a 4th- or 5th-century tomb with several chambers that is now called the Tomb of the False Door.
A decade later, according to local officials, three farmers happened upon a large stone tablet, engraved in 330 A.D. in the ancient languages of Sabean and Ge'ez, as well as Greek, that contained announcements by a king warning peasants to pay taxes. The tablet is now kept in a padlocked stone shack and guarded by a small boy.
Giorghis and his team are working on a project, funded by part of a $5 million World Bank loan, to upgrade the conditions of the artifacts that have been found. They are also trying to help the impoverished local population benefit from the historical discoveries and the tourism that they bring.
The team is preparing to post explanatory plaques next to the monuments so schoolchildren can learn about their heritage. There are also plans to build a modern museum that will replace a crumbling one and can be used for classrooms.
Around Aksum, the donkey is the prevailing mode of transportation, and farming is still done with ancient wooden tools like those found in dusty museum cases. Life carries on much the way it might have 2,000 years ago, with women hand-washing clothes and collecting water and men working the soil for beans and barley.
Most of the population is desperately poor with the average life expectancy about 40. About 60 percent of the population can't read.
So it's not surprising that some families here worry that uncovering the past will help only historians.
The cost of dismantling the obelisk and shipping it from Italy to Ethiopia, for instance, was about $50 million, which was paid by the Italian government. The high figure caused a debate among educated Ethiopians, who wondered whether that money would have been better spent on building factories to give Ethiopians jobs and training.
But historians argue that good things can come of discovering and preserving the past. Giorghis stressed that excavation work takes decades and that only 30 of the estimated 5,000 families living in the town's historic neighborhood might have to leave.
"A poor country like Ethiopia has an incredible history that can be brought out to help economic conditions," he said.
The team is working on a project to train residents to make replicas of Aksumite art and coins that can be sold to tourists. There will also be maps and brochures made of the town to make it more accessible to tourists, along with the new monument plaques.
For Gebrmedihin and his household of 12 children and grandchildren, moving to another location is not an option. The family has lived in the same mud-and-stone compound for three generations, farming the fields nearby and earning enough just to eat.
But after the most recent community meeting, the elderly man said he would let the historians dig around his home, if his family was allowed to remain. "The past and the present are both important," he said, leaning on his cane. "Maybe there's a way to do both."
The bottom section of the returned Axum obelisk close to its old home in Axum's northern obelisk field. (photo courtesy: aheavens)