War takes a high toll on Ethiopia's cultural heritage

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While the human cost of the war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region is certainly devastating, the clashes also ravage the country’s cultural heritage, putting ancient sites in danger of total destruction.

Since 2020, the conflict in northern Ethiopia has killed thousands and forced hundreds of thousands others from their homes.

However, in addition to the enormous human cost of the war, it also takes a toll on the country’s ancient cultural heritage sites. 

Residents and religious leaders say various sites have been damaged by shelling, artefacts have been looted, and countless others are inaccessible to worshippers and pilgrims. Even priests have been killed, according to the media.

“Where there are conflicts, treasures disappear, get stolen, or damaged. Therefore, our treasures are in danger at this moment because of this conflict,” said Birhan Yeshiwas, Historical Treasures Curator at the National Museum. 

“The treasures in our country are very ancient. We cannot find them elsewhere or replace them.”

Here we take a closer look at some of the heritage sites affected by the war:

Al Nejashi Mosque
Al Nejashi Mosque
(Reuters)

Al Nejashi Mosque

Historians say this mosque was built by some of Prophet Mohammad’s first disciples, who came to what is now Ethiopia to escape persecution in Mecca. They were given refuge by the Axumite Kingdom, whose capital was Axum in Tigray.

Many of the disciples eventually returned to current-day Saudi Arabia, but 15 are said to be buried at the mosque.

Turkey provided funds for renovations, which were completed in 2018.

Al Nejashi, in the town of Negash, witnessed heavy fighting between Tigrayan forces and Ethiopian troops and their Eritrean allies. Pictures show that the mosque sustained serious damage.

Locals accused Eritrean troops of shelling the mosque and looting the compound – a charge the Eritreans deny.

St Mary Rock-Hewn Church
St Mary Rock-Hewn Church
(Reuters)

Lalibela

Lalibela is a town located in Ethiopia’s northern Amhara region. Construction was begun here during the 12th century by a king of the same name.

 Lalibela’s famed rock-hewn churches are a United Nations World Heritage Site.

These 11 grand churches are carved from rock, and tens of thousands of pilgrims dressed in white cotton visit them each year. 

Many Ethiopians walk weeks to reach Lalibela  in order to commemorate Orthodox Christmas on January 7.

St George Rock Hewn Church
St George Rock Hewn Church
(Reuters)

The town was captured by The Tigray People’s Liberation Front, TPLF, and its allies in August.

Although there is no evidence of damage or looting in the town, a buffer zone has been established around the perimeter. People can not visit the site due to the conflict.

“Thousands and thousands visit Lalibela,” said Fentaw Alemu, a Lalibela guide, “Some people make a vow, for example saying, ‘I will bring something for the church next year if my mother is cured of her illness.’“

“Now these people cannot fulfill their vow.”

Tens of thousands of Ethiopians cheered during the Axum obelisk unveiling in Axum in September, 2008 as the 1,700-year-old giant stone obelisk taken to Italy in the 1930s was restored to its historic site.
Tens of thousands of Ethiopians cheered during the Axum obelisk unveiling in Axum in September, 2008 as the 1,700-year-old giant stone obelisk taken to Italy in the 1930s was restored to its historic site.
(Reuters)

Axum

Axum, another city in northern Tigray, was the capital of the Axumite Empire, which spanned nearly all of the first millennium AD. 

The city is considered a rich archaeological site, and today it is still dotted with several ancient engraved stone columns known as stelae.

Its sacred churches include Axum Tsion, which is said to have been built in the 4th century. It has been rebuilt several times over the centuries. 

Worshippers believe the church houses the Ark of the Covenant, an ornate box said to contain the two stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. 

Tens of thousands of Ethiopian Christians normally visit the church during the Festival of Tsion Mariam, which is celebrated at the end of November.

Heavy fighting took place around Axum in mid-November last year. Amnesty International said that on November 28, Eritrean soldiers killed at least 240 residents. 

Eritrea’s information minister, Yemane Meskel, rejected Amnesty’s report and said the organisation had made no attempt to seek any information from Eritrea.

Debre Damo monastery
Debre Damo monastery
(Reuters)

Debre Damo

Debre Damo, a monastery in the Tigray region famous for its collection of ancient manuscripts, is believed to have been founded in the 6th century. 

Perched atop a table mountain, only men are permitted to visit. In order to reach the monastery, they must climb a rope up a 15-metre cliff.

118618 ETH20211117EthiopiaculturalsitesRTR 1637141457309

(Reuters)

Several churches had been damaged or destroyed in the conflict, including Debre Damo. At least one monk was killed, the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, said in May. 

He did not say who was responsible.

118607 ETH20211117EthiopiamonasteryRTR 1637141564591

(Reuters)

Source: TRTWorld and agencies

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