Since the outbreak of violence in Tigray on 4 November 2020, when the federal Ethiopian government launched a military offensive against the region, there has been a steady increase in reports of human rights violations. These include the killing of scores of civilians and sexual violence. Moreover, as UNICEF’s Executive Director Henrietta Fore has recently pointed out, ‘for 12 weeks, the international humanitarian community has had very limited access to conflict-affected populations across most of Tigray’. This is not accidental, the Ethiopian authorities have blocked the internet and banned journalists to keep foreign observers in the dark. Yet, even at this stage, two points seem clear. The first, and most tragic, is that hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced or are in need of food aid because of the conflict. The second is that Tigray’s cultural heritage has been deliberately damaged or pillaged, even if the exact scale of this attack remains to be fully understood.
Home to thousands of culturally significant artefacts and monuments, the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia is steeped in history. Among the treasures preserved in Tigray are some of the earliest standing monuments in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as artefacts and sites that provide precious material evidence for the early history of Christianity and Islam in the continent. For example, late antique copies of biblical texts, some richly illustrated, as well as basilicas shed light on the religious practices and Christianisation of the northern Horn of Africa and on exchanges with the Mediterranean world. Medieval wall paintings, rock-hewn churches and metal objects show that Christian Ethiopians expressed their identity and beliefs through a distinct material culture while being receptive to visual ideas from Islamic and other Oriental Orthodox communities. Icons, preserved in dozens of sites, visualise the spiritual devotion and theological sophistication of Ethiopia’s holy men. Finally, palaces such as that of Yohannes IV in Mekelle, built in the late 19th century, speak to the existence of a wealthy and powerful elite involved in international politics, and, perhaps, tragically represent the political tensions that continue to complicate interregional relationships in the Horn of Africa. In 1868, for example, Yohannes IV as King of Tigray aided the British troops who crossed his lands on their way to storm the Maqdala fortress of Emperor Tewodros II (r. 1855–68), no doubt in the hope that they would aid him by removing his powerful political opponent. A few years later, on 11 July 1871, Yohannes IV defeated Emperor Takla Giyorgis II (r. 1869–71), becoming the new King of Kings of Ethiopia.
Recent conflicts in Africa and the Middle East serve as reminders that wars often have a negative impact on cultural sites and artefacts. Heritage may be damaged to attack the identity of those to whom it belongs or plundered for profit. Photographic evidence shows that important Ethiopian churches and mosques have been bombed. The mosque of Negash, considered by locals as one of the earliest in Africa, is among the sites that have been damaged by the conflict in Tigray. According to another report, published by the European External Programme with Africa (EEPA), about 750 people seeking refuge in front of the cathedral of Maryam Seyon (Mary of Zion) – the most holy church for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians – were killed on 15 December. Some eyewitnesses claim that these civilians were killed while preventing the looting of their church. Sources, corroborated by footage, indicate that the Cherkos Church in Zalambesa was bombed and looted. The Society for the Promotion of Museums in Ethiopia has recently posted an update, informing members that a museum that houses artefacts from the pre-Christian period has been partly damaged and plundered, and the Telegraph reports that ancient medieval manuscripts have been burnt.
It is still hard to get an exact picture of the situation, but the reports of widespread looting by Eritrean troops, who are said to have joined the conflict, are deeply concerning. There is little question that monuments and local collections have been severely affected by this situation, even if we are not yet in a position to assess the extent of these attacks. There are several online petitions including a call for immediate and full humanitarian access and stop starvation in war-affected Tigray and an appeal for the salvation of the cultural heritage of Tigray. The people of Tigray and their precious heritage are urgently in need of support and protection.
The fee for this piece has been donated to charity.