The Ethiopian government is calling for the restitution of a sacred object that is sealed inside an altar in London’s Westminster Abbey.

The object, known as a tabot, is a tablet that symbolically represents the Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Commandments. Every Ethiopian church houses a covered tabot, which is regarded as sacrosanct and must be seen only by the priest. The tablets, which are made of wood or stone, are believed to be inscribed with a cross and the name of a saint.

Westminster Abbey’s tabot was looted at the battle of Maqdala (formerly Magdala) in 1868, when British troops attacked the forces of the Ethiopian emperor Tewodros. The tabot was acquired by Captain George Arbuthnot of the Royal Artillery.

Although Anglican churches and cathedrals have an established system for deaccessioning furnishings, Westminster Abbey is a Royal Peculiar, which puts it directly under the monarch’s jurisdiction. The deaccessioning procedure is something of a grey area, but returning the tabot might require the blessing of The Queen. She may not have a personal view on the subject, but her son and heir, Prince Charles, has developed close links with eastern Orthodox churches and could well be sympathetic. Read more