Dr. Richard Pankhurst, doyen of Ethiopian historians and scholars, has died

Dr. Richard Pankhurst, one of Ethiopia's greatest friends and a leading scholar and historian of Ethiopia during his long and productive life, has passed away in his ninetieth year. A humanist as well as a great scholar and champion of Ethiopia's history and people, he was known for the many books he authored, and the many students he mentored and taught. The son of Sylvia Pankhurst, herself a staunch supporter of Ethiopia's struggle against Italy in the 1930s, Dr. Pankhurst first came to Ethiopia over sixty five years ago and devoted his life to Ethiopian studies. He played a critical and formative role in the establishment of Ethiopian studies as an academic discipline in the Haile Selassie University and in the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, and led the fight against the Italian and British governments to repatriate Ethiopia's stolen heritage, being instrumental in the successful campaign to get the Axum Stelae back from Italy to Ethiopia.

Richard Pankhurst was born in London in 1927. He attended the London School of Economics, where he earned a BSc (Econ.) in Economic History and a PhD in Political Science. He was involved with his mother Sylvia Pankhurst in the campaign against the Fascist occupation of Ethiopia and participated with her in demonstrations, fundraising and campaigns, and assisted her with the editing of the newspaper ‘New Times and Ethiopia News' for over 20 years.  As a young man Richard was friends with many Ethiopian students and refugees in London and first visited Ethiopia with his mother Sylvia in 1950. After teaching Economic and Social History in the University of London Extra-Mural Department and conducting research at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research Richard settled in Ethiopia in 1956 with his mother Sylvia and his wife Rita and they edited the journal ‘Ethiopia Observer' from 1956 to 1974.

Richard Pankhurst taught for many years at the University College of Addis Ababa, later the Haile Selassie I University. He founded and became the first Director of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies (IES), and promoted the development of the associated library, museum and art gallery. In 1966 he convened the first International Conference of Ethiopian Studies to be held in Ethiopia. Heading the Institute's research program, he was responsible for the development of the Institute's Library and Museum. He was co-founder of the Journal of Ethiopian Studies and co-edited it for many years, 1956-74. He encouraged many young Ethiopian students and assisted them to carry on advanced studies abroad, some later became prominent scholars.

During this time he embarked on his studies of Ethiopia's economic and social history, writing a number of major works: an Introduction to the Economic History of Ethiopia (1961), State and Land in Ethiopian History (1965) and an Economic History of Ethiopia 1800-1935 (1968).  In 1973 he was awarded the Haile Selassie I Prize for Ethiopian Studies. Leaving Ethiopia in 1976, he was appointed Research Fellow at the London School of Economics and at the School of Oriental and African Studies, and later became the Librarian of the Royal Asiatic Society. While in London he co-authored with Girma Selassie Asfaw, an important monograph on the Tax Documents and Inventories of Emperor Tewodros II (1855-1868) (1978), and published a two-volume History of Ethiopian Towns (1982, 1984). With his wife, Rita, he also convened the first International Conference of Ethiopian Art in London in 1986.

He returned to Addis Ababa in 1987, re-joining the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. Continuing his research, he published a Social History of Ethiopia (1990), A Medical History of Ethiopia (1990), and A History of the Ethiopian Borderlands (1997). Among his more popular works were, with Leila Ingrams, Ethiopia Engraved (1988) and with Denis Gérard, Ethiopia Photographed (1996). The Ethiopians: A History, was published in 1998. He wrote over 25 books and several hundred articles and essays. From the beginning of his career, he wrote in newspapers and magazines to create better awareness of Ethiopia's historical and cultural issues and was a regular contributor to Addis Tribune and more recently Capital. Richard Pankhurst participated regularly at the International Conferences of Ethiopian Studies and co-edited many of the Proceedings. He also made numerous contributions to the Encyclopaedia Aethiopica. 

He played a prominent role in the successful campaign for the return to Ethiopia from Italy of the Aksum Obelisk, and organized and became Vice-Chair of AFROMET, the Association for the Return of Magdala Ethiopian Treasures. He campaigned for the return of such artifacts as crosses and icons held in private collections and museum in the UK and was successful in obtaining the return of a number of treasures, most notably the Tabot of Medhane Alem. 

For many years he was active in the Society of Friends of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, SOFIES, of which he was sometime Chair, helping to raise funds for the museum collection, to purchase icons, paintings, crosses and artifacts at risk of being sold and taken abroad. He also campaigned for the establishment of a new library for the Institute. This is about to be completed. In 2004 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Addis Ababa University and the British Order of the British Empire, for his contributions to Ethiopian Studies. Three years later he received a silver miniature Aksum Obelisk from the readers and staff of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, to mark fifty years of service at the University.He wrote popular weekly articles on Ethiopian history and culture for Addis Tribune (1992-2005) contributed regularly to the quarterly the EAL flight magazine, Salamta, since its inception, and currently writes fortnightly articles for Capital. His life and his work, together with his wife, Rita, were celebrated by the Institute of Ethiopian Studies and SOFIES in 2011with a Festschrift dedicated to Richard and Rita Pankhurst in the Journal of Ethiopian Studies (2007), XL, Nos. 1-2. In 2016 he received the Bikila Lifetime Achievement Award from the Ethiopian community in Canada. In 2016 his contribution to the return of the Aksum Obelisk, along with others, was recognized by President Dr. Mulatu at a ceremony in the Jubilee Palace

Richard Pankhurst died on Thursday, February 16, 2017 at the age of 89. He is survived by his wife Rita with whom he lived for over 60 years, his son Alula and daughter Helen, and four grandchildren, Henok, Heleena, Laura and Alex. Foreign Minister, Dr. Workneh Gebeyehu, offers his condolences and profound sympathy to the family, and all the friends and colleagues of a truly valued and treasured friend of Ethiopia.

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