Magdala, or more accurately Maqdala, was the fortress of the Abyssinian emperor Tewodros II (reigned 1855-1868). In 1867 Tewodros (or Theodore) imprisoned the British consul and some other Europeans, in reply to which Britain sent a military expedition. Emperor Tewodros was defeated and committed suicide, and the citadel of Magdala was comprehensively looted of many of Abyssinia's greatest treasures.
Abyssinia, or Ethiopia, was just starting to modernize. The Emperor sent a letter to Queen Victoria in 1862 seeking closer relations between their countries, but Britain's strategic interest lay with Abyssinia's rival Egypt, and the letter was ignored. Eventually the Emperor avenged this insult by taking prisoner the consul, Duncan Campbell. The British expedition under Sir Robert Napier, dispatched in 1867, arrived at the mountain fastness of Magdala and a great battle took place on 10 April 1868. The Emperor Tewodros refused humiliating surrender terms, and killed himself.
The looting was thoroughgoing even by the standards of the day. As well as the regalia of the palace, huge quantities of beautiful mediaeval manuscripts were carried away, and the neighbouring church of Madhane Alam was stripped of its ecclesiastical glories. The reporter and explorer Henry Stanley witnessed it, and the chief beneficiary in the auction of the spoils that took place over the next days was the archaeologist and curator Richard Holmes, acting for the British Museum.
The victory was of course hailed back home, though few Britons today could guess why there are pubs and streets called Magdala all over the country, or why the pub signs show forts and soldiers. A great part of Ethiopia's patrimony is today in the British Library, Victoria and Albert Museum, Bodleian Library, and so on.
But this was the first instance where African calls for restitution against European plunderers were successful; and the campaign insisting on return of more is strong today. It took several years for a new ruler to emerge from Abyssinia's anarchy. Yohannes IV had cooperated with the Napier expedition, so when shortly after his enthronement in 1872 he wrote to the British crown requesting the return of two treasures, he was listened to.
The Museum found they had two copies of the Kebra Nagast, the 'Glory of Kings', an epic recounting the dynasties of Ethiopia from the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, and the arrival of the Ark of the Covenant there. (This is considered by Rastafarians as their holy book.) They returned the inferior copy. They searched for the icon of Christ in the Crown of Thorns, called the Kwer'ata Re'esu, which for centuries had been carried before kings in battle and on which oaths were sworn; but it could not be found. Later it appeared Sir Richard Holmes had kept it for himself.
Some more nominal restitution of the Magdala treasures took place in the next century: a crown to Empress Zauditu on a state visit to London, and another bauble to Haile Selassie when Queen Elizabeth went to Ethiopia. Between these two friendly gestures, World War Two had taken place, Italy had occupied Ethiopia, and Mussolini had made off with everything that was left. On Italy's defeat they were of course made to hand back everything they had taken.