George Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, has told The Art Newspaper that he is “astonished and saddened” that Westminster Abbey is refusing to return a sacred tabot to Ethiopia. For the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a tabot is a holy tablet that symbolically represents the Ark of the Covenant.
London’s Westminster Abbey is what is known as a Royal Peculiar, which puts it directly under the monarch’s jurisdiction. This means that returning the tabot might well require the blessing of the monarch, the supreme governor of the Church of England.
In July 2018 The Art Newspaper revealed that the Ethiopian government was calling for the restitution of the abbey’s tabot. Although King Charles III will now be dealing with a myriad of pressing issues, he is known to be sympathetic towards the Eastern Churches. More than 150 years after its acquisition, an appeal to the new king for the return of the tabot might finally prove successful.
Westminster Abbey’s tabot was looted at the battle of Maqdala (Magdala) in 1868, when British troops attacked the forces of emperor Tewodros. The tabot was then acquired by Captain George Arbuthnot of the Royal Artillery.
Arbuthnot donated the tabot to the abbey. Two years later a new altar was commissioned for the Henry VII Lady Chapel. The dean inserted the tabot into the back of the altar, where it remained visible, along with two other sacred objects: fragments from the high altar of Canterbury Cathedral and the leading Greek Orthodox church in Damascus.
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Source: The Art Newspaper