A priceless 18th-century Ethiopian crown is set to be returned from the Netherlands to Addis Ababa after Sirak Asfaw, a Dutch civil servant who was born in Ethiopia, stumbled upon the crown in a suitcase left behind by one of his visitor and hid it in his apartment for two decades.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Mr. Sirak, who moved to the Netherlands a political refugee in the 1970s, said in a recent interview in Amsterdam. “I felt betrayed. Using my house to smuggle cultural heritage from Ethiopia? I knew it had something to do with Ethiopian history, the Ethiopian kingdom. I knew this is not good. I did not want to return it to the same regime that had made it possible for the crown to get stolen”
After asking for help on internet forums – which yielded no useful answers – he decided the best course of action was to hold onto the crown until he knew it would be safe.
” I knew if I gave it back, it would just disappear again,” he said.
“You end up in such a suffocating situation, not knowing who to tell or what to do, or to hand over,” he said. “And of course afraid that the Dutch government might confiscate it.” But with the end of the former regime and the election of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed last year, Mr Sirak felt the time was right to have a piece of Ethiopia’s history return to Addis Ababa.
Jacopo Gnisci, a research associate at Oxford University who also examined the artefact and confirmed its authenticity, said there were less than two dozen of these crowns, called “zewd”, in existence.
“These crowns are of great cultural and symbolic significance in Ethiopia, as they are usually donated by high-ranking officials to churches in a practice that reaches as far back as the Late Antiquity.”
This crown has an inscription dating to 1633-34, but Gnisci said it was more likely to have been made a century later and was commissioned by one of Ethiopia’s most powerful warlords, “ras” Welde Sellase.