AXUM, Ethiopia — More than 60 years ago Seguare Abaye and thousands of other Ethiopians watched as Italian invaders carted away a towering 1,700-year-old stone monument to the nation's glorious past.
"We didn't fight to keep our treasure," says the 101-year-old former priest, now bedridden in a crumbling house in this ancient town. "It is my deepest regret in life."
Seguare's personal humiliation has, over the years, become a national humiliation for Ethiopia, the only African country never colonized by Europeans. The monument still graces the Piazza di Porta Capena in Rome, even though Italy has agreed to return it on at least three separate occasions since World War II ended.
While commonly called the Axum Obelisk, it is technically a stele, an upright, engraved slab used to mark a grave. An obelisk is a four-sided pillar shaped like a pyramid.
The latest round began last month, when Vittorio Sgarbi, Italy's deputy culture minister, reportedly threatened to resign if the stele was returned to Ethiopia. It was the latest in a string of such statements from Sgarbi, who has said he fears the Ethiopians cannot properly maintain or safeguard the monument.
Sgarbi's statement prompted the Ethiopian government to demand the Italians make good on a 1997 agreement to return the stele.
"The Ethiopian people's patience is being tested to the limit and it's wearing thin," the culture ministry was quoted as saying in the Ethiopian Herald. "Ethiopia wants the agreement implemented."
Ethiopian officials say they have not been contacted by the Italians, and the Italian government did not respond to an Associated Press request for comment Thursday.
Italian forces invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and occupied it until the British chased them out in 1941. Troops cut up the 82-foot-tall stele and hauled it away in 1937 on the orders of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini — war booty to serve as a monument marking the 15th anniversary of his rise to power.
For Ethiopians, the monument's presence in Rome "symbolizes the Italian invasion," said Richard Pankhurst, a professor and former director of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa, the capital.
"It was stolen in a war that included the use of poison gas, the shooting of prisoners of war, the shooting of monks, the killing of thousands of innocents," he said.
The latest agreement to return the stone came in 1997 and prompted Ethiopian officials to print postage stamps celebrating its return.
But that optimism is fading into anger and frustration.
"The Italians have been here, they've seen our preparations," says Fisseha Zibelo, an Ethiopian culture ministry official in Axum, standing alongside the deep hole that has been dug for it in Stele Field, where many smaller steles stand.
"It is an insult for them not to send it here," Fisseha said. "The obelisk doesn't have any connection with Italy, it is part of our heritage."
Scholars believe the stele was chiseled from solid granite around 300 A.D, shortly before Ethiopia's conversion to Christianity. Most of Axum's other steles are believed to have gone up over the next few hundred years.
Most are blank sheets of rock. But some, like the one in Rome, are carved to look like multistory buildings complete with doors, windows, sometimes even door handles. The style mimics the Axumite architectural style of the day, when the Ethiopian kingdom was centered in this town and was a rival to ancient Rome and Persia.
Axum today is a small town of ramshackle stone buildings surrounded by arid highland plains and hills. Scholars are unsure how the steles were transported here from a quarry about 2 1/2 miles away, although some suggest elephants, levers and wheels were used.
Seguare, the former priest, remembers the Italians putting a tent around the stele and ordering everyone to stay away. He was in a nearby church about a week later when word swept through town that the Italians were taking something large out of the tent.
"We saw four boxes and we knew what they were doing ... they pushed the boxes on a wooden track into trucks and just drove it away," he says. "We had no power to stop them; they had modern guns."
As soon as the trucks were gone he went to church to pray and has continued praying for the stele's return every day for the last 65 years.
"There is nothing that is impossible for God," says Seguare, his voice barely audible, weakened with age. "I am fragile and in bed, but I am hoping I will see it before I go."