It’s holy a mystery as priests book surprise

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A DELEGATION of Ethiopian priests who came to Edinburgh to collect a 400-year-old holy relic found at the back of a church cupboard are going home with more than they bargained for.

A mystery woman took the opportunity at the official hand-over ceremony at St John’s Episcopal Church in Princes Street to present the priests with a valuable ancient holy book she had bought during a visit to Ethiopia some years ago.

"She just walked in and presented the delegation with this ancient hand-written book in the old Ethiopian language," said church spokesman Andrew Heavens.

"All she said was some time ago she had been in Ethiopia and had bought it off an obviously rather disreputable priest, who clearly should not have sold this book.

"Her conscience had felt moved to return the book."

Mr Heavens said the Ethiopians had been delighted with the book and were now keen to track down the woman to thank her properly.

"All we know is she comes from Edinburgh," he added.

The move followed a call by the Rev John McLuckie, the cleric who discovered the sacred carving at St John’s, for the return of plundered objects to their rightful owners.

The carving - known as a tabot - represents the Ark of the Covenant, which carried the Ten Commandments, and is so sacred it is only ever seen by priests.

It had been seized by British soldiers after the siege of an Ethiopian mountain fortress in 1868. Mr McLuckie found it in a leather box in a cupboard .

He recognised it straight away because he had spent a summer working in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa and knew something of the country’s religious culture.

A 100-strong delegation of Ethiopian priests, officials and individuals from the Rastafarian community in the UK and overseas attended yesterday’s special ceremony at St John’s.

Ephrem Mehret-ab, spokesman for the delegation, praised the Scottish church for returning the carving, and said he hoped their gesture would encourage other people to hand back artefacts which rightfully belonged to Ethiopia.

He said: "No-one can underestimate just how significant and joyful this hand-over is. The people of my country, a number of whom travelled here to see this, are simply delighted.

"The tabot is part of our history and tradition and it’s rightfully ours."

The tabot is traditionally kept wrapped in cloths at the centre of an Ethiopian Orthodox church.

Mr Heavens said today: "We did a very simple thing which was to return a piece of stolen property, and we are overjoyed it has already inspired someone to hand back something else which should never have left Ethiopia.

"We would now call on the British Library, the British Museum and the Royal Library at Windsor to follow suit and hand back the many precious objects they have."

The tabot had an inscription on its base saying it was taken by British forces after the siege of Magdala in 1868, one of the most bloody and controversial episodes in Ethiopia’s history.

After the raid , parts of the treasure were auctioned to senior officers to raise "prize money" for the victorious soldiers. One officer bought the tabot and presented it to St John’s.

Much of the haul, which included more than 1000 sacred manuscripts, gold crowns and processional crosses, ended up in London’s British and Victoria & Albert museums.

Historians have described the Magdala plunder as Ethiopia’s Elgin Marbles and campaigners have been calling for years for the plunder to be returned to their country.