Tigray’s people and their heritage urgently need protecting


By Jacopo Gnisci (Source: https://www.apollo-magazine.com/)

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.

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