Road signs are designed to be universal so that anywhere in the world drivers can be aware of local driving rules and potential hazards. Yet this sign in South Korea isn’t something you’ll see on most roads, setting the speed limit for trucks as well as tanks at 20 kilometers per hour. Flickr user BaboMike guesses it’s a remnant from the war, as tank traffic isn’t so common these days.
Sure, it made a poor showing in World War Two, but it was Italian Communist partisans who finally bagged Mussolini. Plus the Italians fought in one of the toughest fronts of the First World War, high in the Alps against the Germans and Austro-Hungarians. They endured freezing conditions on top of glaciers for months on end. One of the favorite tactics was to cause avalanches to bury the opposing side. A few years ago the mummies of three Austro-Hungarian soldiers were found frozen in the ice, and another World War One soldier was found last month at an Italian ski resort.
The Italians are also pulling their weight in Afghanistan with 3,800 troops, and joined in the invasion of Iraq and served there for three years. Sadly they have suffered more than 50 deaths in these wars.
And then there was Operation Alba. Operation Alba? Yeah, that’s been pretty much forgotten. In 1997 the government of Albania collapsed, plunging the country into chaos and leading to fighting that killed some 2,000 people. Italy commanded an international coalition that restored order in a textbook case on how to properly run a peacekeeping operation. The rule of law was established and the troops were gone in five months. Military successes tend to be forgotten in favor of military disasters.
Rome has several military museums dedicated to its fallen heroes. Usually overlooked in favor of the giant archaeology and art museums, they offer an interesting glimpse into forgotten history and weapons you’re unlikely to see anywhere else. Take this little tank I’m standing next to, for instance. This is an L3/35 with twin machine guns (now removed). They were introduced in the 1930s and are a stage in development between the lumbering behemoths of WWI and the more practical tanks of WWII. They proved useful during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and 1936. Despite their thin armor, the Ethiopians didn’t have anything to destroy them, although some brave warriors managed to immobilize them by sticking pieces of railroad track or even sabers into their treads! The L3/35 also saw service in North Africa in WWII where they proved easy prey for the more advanced British tanks.
%Gallery-102423%Here are some of the military museums in Rome:
Ufficio Storico Stato Maggiore Esercito: The Italian army archives has an interesting collection of tanks and weapons, mostly from the two World Wars. Several display cases show artifacts dug up from the Alpine front of World War One. It’s in a military building, so bring some ID and expect to have your bag searched. Via Etruria 33.
Museo Storico della Fanteria: The Infantry Museum houses the best and largest military collection in the city with artifacts dating from Roman times up to the present day. The garden is decorated with tanks and cannon set beneath an ancient Roman arch, and the three floors inside are filled with racks of guns, full uniforms, paintings, and dioramas. Piazza San Croce in Gerusalemme 9.
Museo Storico dei Granatieri di Sardegna: Two doors down from the Infantry Museum is one dedicated to the grenadiers of Sardinia. It traces their history from 1659 when they were armed with primitive grenades to their present-day duties as part of the Mechanized Infantry. Piazza San Croce in Gerusalemme 7.
Museo Storico dei Bersaglieri: The Bersaglieri are an elite force in the Italian army famous for running everywhere, even when they’re in their barracks. This makes them very fit and they’re considered some of the toughest troops in the army. Founded even before the unification of Italy, they’ve fought with distinction in all its wars. Porta Pia i Via XX Settembre.
Museo Storico della Motorizzazione Militare: This museum dedicated to military vehicles displays more than 300 tanks, trucks, helicopters, mobile rocket launchers, motorcycles, and more. It’s located in a large military base. Bring ID and expect to be searched. Viale dell’Esercito 170. If you like tanks, you might want to check out our list of other great tank museums.
There are several more military museums worth seeing, so check out the list the Italian army has here. It’s in Italian, but the basic information is easy enough to puzzle out.
Don’t forget to check out the rest of my Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s Sinister Side.
Coming up Next: The Catacombs of Rome!
Driving north out of Ethiopia’s Amhara region into the borderland province of Tigray, the landscape becomes rockier and drier. The mountains rise higher and are more frequent, and at times sheer cliffs loom above the road. This is a harsh land with a harsh history. The bloody Ethiopian civil war and the war with neighboring Eritrea destroyed villages and crops and killed hundreds of thousands. Burnt-out tanks sit rusting by the side of the highway and huge refugee camps, cities really, house entire populations that have fled hunger and oppression in Eritrea for a better life in Ethiopia.
But there’s another side to Tigray. There’s peace in the land now and the children are just as friendly as in the rest of Ethiopia. The adults are friendly and hospitable too. And there’s a proud history to this region. It was here, in the fourth century BC, that the great civilization of Axum was founded. Its reach extended across what is now Ethiopia and Eritrea and even to the other shore of the Red Sea in what is now Yemen and Saudi Arabia. It brought Christianity to east Africa in 325 AD, making Ethiopia the second oldest Christian nation in the world after Armenia, which converted in 301. An important trading center controlling the Red Sea and exporting African goods to the rest of the world, the ancient Greeks recognized Axum as one of the great civilizations of the world. Axumite coins have been found as far away as China.
The remains of Axum are as imposing as the land itself. There are several important archaeological sites in the area and a proper visit will take at least a couple of days. The Dongar palace, reputed home of the Queen of Sheba of Biblical fame, has large central rooms, a complicated system for moving water, and a warren of smaller quarters for servants and supplies. Nearby is a desolate field with hundreds of standing stones, the graves of royalty. Some are small and have fallen over after centuries of weathering, while others tower overhead, monuments to great kings and queens who are now forgotten.
%Gallery-90136%Another impressive palace is that of Ezana, the first Christian king of Axum. Beneath its floors lies the tomb of Basen, known in the West at Balthazar, the wise man from Africa who came Bethlehem to honor the infant Jesus. Nearby is an equally evocative sight, a simple slab of stone covered in writing. A closer look reveals there are three different languages on it: Sabaean, an ancient Yemeni script; Ge’ez, the traditional language of Ethiopia that still survives in the Christian liturgy; and Greek. This Rosetta Stone of Ethiopia was discovered by two local farmers just a few years ago.
By far the most impressive and famous part of Axum is the main field of stelae. One is that of King Ezana, rising 23 meters into the clear blue sky. On the day we went the crescent moon hovered just above it. An even larger stela lies shattered where it fell nearby. Another stela, measuring 26 meters, was stolen by the Italians when they briefly occupied Ethiopia from 1936-41. Mussolini set it up in Rome as a monument to his power, but within a few years Communist partisans had shot him and hung him up by a meat hook as an object of public scorn. Fascism in Italy was destroyed, but it wasn’t until 2005 that the stela finally returned to its rightful place.
These stelae are carved with depictions of windows and doors like houses. Clambering around these monumental remains I wondered about the symbolism. Did it represent palaces built by the kings when they were alive, or a house of the spirit like in Egyptian tombs? Perhaps it had a different meaning now lost to time. There’s also the mystery of how these monuments were erected in the first place, and why this incredible civilization declined and was eventually overcome by its enemies. I’ve been to some of the greatest archaeological ruins in the world and they all have one thing in common–they’re all ruins now. We shouldn’t assume our own civilization is eternal. If we do, we’ll be making the same mistake as the Incas, the Egyptians, the Romans, the Axumites, and dozens of others.
Not far from Axum is the pagan temple of Yeha, dating to about the 8th century BC, although nobody is really sure. The temple, which still stands 12 meters high, is related to the Sabaean culture, which once dominated the southern Saudi peninsula, and it looks like its cousins in Yemen. The place later became a church and monastery, and a cross-shaped window casts a bright yellow light on the interior.
Heading out of Axum, we skirt close to the Eritrean border, still technically a war zone because the two countries haven’t signed a peace agreement since the cease fire took effect in 2000. A pair of soldiers, country kids who couldn’t be more than eighteen, hitch a ride and tell us how bored they are and how much they miss home. One of them eases an arm around my wife’s seat back and gives his friend a proud grin. I look at him to show I’ve noticed, and he blushes and pulls his arm away. We get to their stop, a bare stretch of road, and they shoulder their Kalashnikovs, waving goodbye and wishing us a pleasant journey.
Next time: climbing to a clifftop monastery and exploring the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela!
You can read the rest of the Ethiopia series here.
OK, I’ll admit it, inside I’m still twelve years old. I love big lumbering metal monsters that crash through brick walls and blast away with cannons and machine guns. Tanks rock. So with no further justification, here are five of the best tank museums in the world.
The Tank Museum, Bovington, United Kingdom
The British invented the tank in an attempt to break the deadlock of trench warfare during World War One, so it’s only appropriate that they boast the biggest tank museum in the world. Located in Dorset, this museum has the best collection of First World War tanks I’ve ever seen, including some one-of-a-kind models. The collections for other periods are excellent too, including the Interwar period, World War Two, and the Cold War. In all they have almost 300 armored vehicles from 26 countries.
Several of the tanks are in working order and there’s a track where they’re driven during the summer. This is the only place in the world where you can see the famous German Tiger I tank of WWII in full running order. There’s also an American M4 Sherman so you can see what the good guys were driving. Check the website for the next live demonstration.
The General George Patton Museum, Fort Knox, Kentucky, USA
A military genius, Patton realized that many old cavalry tactics could actually be used with modern armored vehicles. The results are history. This museum is dedicated to his memory and the development of the American tank. Not surprisingly, the WWII section is the best, but there are good collections for other periods as well. Some tanks have their sides cut away so you can see the cross-section and get an idea what it was like to be in one. There’s also an excellent exhibition on the man himself.
Deutsches Panzermuseum, Munster, Germany
I know someone is going to give me grief about this, but it’s undeniable that the Third Reich had one of the most advanced armies the world has ever seen, and the Panzers were its backbone. There are more than a hundred tanks and armored vehicles here, including some rare examples from World War One, the more familiar Panzers and Tigers of World War Two, and East German tanks dating to the Cold War. There’s also an exhibition exploring the career of the “Desert Fox”, General Erwin Rommel, and a massive collection of German firearms from both world wars.
Kubinka Tank Museum, Kubinka, Russian Federation
The Third Reich may have had a great military, but the Red Army crushed it, thanks in no small part to its huge number of mass-produced tanks. This museum in Kubinka, near Moscow, tells of their proud history. The main displays are of World War Two, including the famous T-34 that did so well against the Germans, and the tanks of the Soviet Union. Like the museum in Bovington, they claim to have the biggest collection in the world with more than 300 vehicles. I guess I’ll just have to go count them!
Le Musée des Blindés, Saumur, France
The French get a lot of unfair ribbing about their military. It’s often forgotten how well they fought in World War One and how they’re fighting the Taliban right now. An U.S. Army Ranger I met who served in Afghanistan says the French fight very well and we should appreciate what they’re doing. The history of French tanks is on display here in the historic town of Saumur, which also has a nice castle if you’re into more old-school militaria. More than 200 of their tanks and armored vehicles are in full operating condition and conduct an annual parade. Be sure to check out the curiosity room with its collection of experimental and unusual vehicles, like the Killer Vespa shown in the photo gallery.
Of course most national military museums have tank collections. The Imperial War Museum in London has some good ones, but it’s beaten by the excellent collection at the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History in Brussels.
Trivia question: How did tanks get their name? Tell us in the comments section. No prize, just bragging rights.