UNESCO’s Inaction on the Destruction & Looting of Ancient Churches and Mosques in Ethiopia
I appreciate your efforts in preserving the common heritage of this planet for future generations to know and, hopefully, continue to protect.
However, I find that your approach to handling the destruction and looting of Orthodox Churches in Ukraine is very different from the same situation (that has occurred for far longer) in the Tigray & Amhara ( & possibly other) regions of Ethiopia.
Whilst I am delighted to see that UNESCO held a special emergency meeting via the Committee for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict to discuss and allocate funds for the situation in Ukraine, I would like to know why have no special meetings have been held for Ethiopia?
The war in Ukraine started just over a month ago. Ethiopia’s cultural icons have been under attack for more than a year.
The silence on this is deafening.
Whilst I understand that a siege on the Tigray region would have prevented access to UNESCO staff, this was also happening in other places in the country which were not under siege.
The road to Tigray has been reopened after more than a year, and your office must seize the moment to document and protect what remains.
Moreover, those looting churches and monasteries are selling stolen bibles and precious relics via eBay. They did not attempt hiding it as they knew no one would come to the Tigrayan’s aid. Why did your office not make any attempt to track down these relics?
Again, this has been going on for a year. Why the inaction?
At most, I saw an indication of a statement of concern for the churches in Lalibela – and then that was about it.
The double-standard here is staggering. Again, I am delighted you acted with such urgency and speed for Ukraine, and there are no criticisms on that.
But I must ask you if your silence on Ethiopia has been due to institutional paralysis or sheer apathy?
One cannot understate the cultural value of Ethiopian sites of worship in terms of the history of human religion on this planet. They have some of the oldest churches and mosques in the world.
How is your office ignoring the destruction of their monastic libraries and relics – and their brazen sale on eBay?
Here are the words of a Tigrayan woman, lamenting the act of simultaneously seeking to destroy her culture, whilst profiting off it. The eBay username of the person selling these artifacts is also visible.
“This my appear old damaged bible but – It holds the story of my ancestors – The prayers of my grandmothers – the wisdom of my grandfathers – The soul of my people in #Tigray The genocidal war meant to separate me from my history is the reason it’s stolen and on-sale in
@eBay” – @lullitx on Twitter
Her pained words speak for themselves.
With respect, I suggest the following:
(1) A public statement on the scope of damages, destruction, looting upon ancient religious and cultural institutions
(2) A means for the public to report eBay accounts selling looted items
(3) More coverage from the many scholars and clergy who have spoken up about this
(4) A recognition of the unique contribution that Ethiopia brings to humanity’s understanding of religion and culture
(5) The invocation of the appropriate procedures through the relevant Committees and the allocation of time and budget to help Ethiopians recover their previous heritage
(6) The recording of oral histories to preserve some of the material in precious manuscripts that have been lost through burning or theft. Many nuns and monks have been killed. Time is of the essence now that the road to Tigray is open.
Thank you for your time. I hope your office will take these words seriously and act in the interests of our shared humanity.
If this is not your relevant department, please reply to me with the name of the person I should contact – or pass it onto them directly.
Time is of the essence.
The world stands to lose so much more of its heritage if UNESCO, the protector of heritage, fails to stand with Ethiopia at this critical time.
Dr. Bairavee Balasubramaniam Ph.D. (University of Warwick, UK)
Here are some excerpts from articles in the public domain that convey some scale of the extent of the destruction:
According to Professor Michael Gervers (University of Toronto), what is happening is a ‘cultural cleansing ‘. Please see this article (from May 2021) that gives some indication of the scale of the damage – from a year ago! https://www.theglobeandmail.com/world/article-in-tigrays-war-ancient-christian-and-muslim-houses-of-worship-risk/
“Tigray’s historic culture, home to some of the world’s oldest Christian manuscripts, religious relics, and historic Islamic sites.
One of Africa’s oldest and most important mosques, al-Nejashi mosque, in the village of Negash near Wukro, was hit by artillery shells that smashed through its historic dome and minaret in late November as Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers seized control of the village. The Eritrean soldiers also reportedly damaged historic tombs and looted the mosque compound, stealing ancient manuscripts, relics, rugs and other items.”
“The famous rock-hewn Ger’alta churches in east Tigray have been damaged by shelling, including the 14th century church Abuna Abraham known for its diverse architectural features and wall paintings. Priests and civilians were intimidated in the monastery of Abuna Yematta of Guh, a place dedicated to one of the 6th century ‘Nine Saints’ and known for its ancient frescos; 19 civilians were killed and two injured here on 7 May 2021.
The Emperor Yohannes IV Palace, the home of a significant Ethiopian king from the 19th century, is situated in the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle. The palace was renovated and transformed into a museum with UNESCO’s assistance, but most of the cultural artifacts in the museum have now been damaged or looted by Ethiopian forces.”
https://www.indcatholicnews.com/news/44055 (Report from Feb 2022)
“The Monastery of Waldba is believed to have been visited by Christ during the Holy Family’s wanderings in the wilderness. Yet Eritrean and Ethiopian forces attacked the monastery on March 21, 2021. Monks were killed, their priceless library destroyed along with their homes and store
Hagiographic evidence suggests the monastery dates from the 14th and 15th centuries, most importantly from the hagiography of Abba Samuel of Wali (originally from Aksum, central Tigray), the founder of the monastery.
It is considered the largest Christian monastery and is regarded as a benchmark for ascetism in East Africa.
The accreditation provided to the monastery as a divine place where Lord Jesus and His Mother St. Mary stayed has been validated to be the home of strong tradition and treasury of irreplaceable heritage.
According to the monks’ (including the librarian himself) report, more than 3000 Ge’ez manuscripts were looted and burned.
More than 300 crosses made of gold, silver and wood were looted and destroyed. Other church heritages and ecclesiastical materials were vandalized. “
And to add further insult to injury:
“A flood of ancient Ethiopian artefacts have appeared for sale on websites including eBay, raising suspicions that they could have been plundered from churches during the conflict in Tigray, according to reports.“