The distinctive centrality of Ethiopia and of the Great African Rift Valley as the cradle of mankind and early history is perhaps the most enthralling of subjects. Unfortunately, despite hosting the many unique sites, preservation has not been adequate and enforced in Ethiopia. This week’s Pankhurst’s Corner discuses the urgent need for museums and the scientific preservation of the legacies of antiquity.
I have been asked to write something about Ethiopia’s Historic Heritage and the Struggle for its Preservation”.
This, on any showing, is what the English call a “Tall Order”. Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa constitute a single cultural area, as Professor Donald Levine has shown. This region is virtually as large as Europe – and has a history dating back to before the Ethiopian three-million and a quarter year-old Lucy, or Dinkenesh, who has been described as the mother of the human race.
I can therefore hope only to highlight a few points which may be worthy of consideration. I will concentrate largely, but not exclusively on historic buildings and paintings, as well as photographs and microfilms, museums and libraries.
Let us begin by considering the above-mentioned history of early man: a significant part of Ethiopia’s heritage. It is now generally agreed that humanity originated in the Great African Rift Valley – which runs right across the centre of Ethiopia. This heritage is important for the understanding of human evolution: why monkeys came down from the trees, and walked on four legs; how they started making hand tools – and all that stuff.
This pre-historic heritage is important also for the study of the early history of crops and livestock – and for the study of cave drawings, which could be conceived as Chapter One in the History of Ethiopian Art.
Tim Clarke, the Representative in Ethiopia until a few weeks ago of the European Union, has proposed the establishment in Addis Ababa of an exciting new Museum dedicated to the Pre-History of Ethiopia and the African Rift Valley – a region which would seem to form an entity in its own right.
This is a project, I feel, which deserves our full support.
Moving from Pre-History to History we have, I believe, to consider Ethiopia’s pre-Aksumite and Aksumite heritage.
Archaeological research has recently been carried out on at the great Pre-Christian Temple at Yeha, dedicated to the worship of the Sun and Moon: a remarkable edifice dating back half a millennium or more before the Birth of Christ. That great structure, as well as other still uninvestigated archaeological remains of the same period, constitute another major part of Ethiopia’s early historic heritage.
Turning down the centuries to the Great Days of Aksum we may say that – despite the work of many scholars from Enno Littmann to David Phillipson – archaeological research on that remarkably rich area of Ethiopia’s heritage has far to go; and there is need to cross the artificial frontier of Eritrea to study the former Aksumite port of Adulis. Our knowledge of that important site has scarcely advanced since the researches of Roberto Paribeni, early in the last century.
Work on the re-erection of the 25 metre high Aksumite obelisk looted by Benito Mussolini in 1937 – and returned by Italy last year – a spectacular aspect of Ethiopia’s heritage – is now well in hand ; but many of us feel that a significant portion of Ethiopia’s heritage will not be appreciated, until there is a favourable response to the Aksumite people’s request for the re-erection of other fallen stele.
While discussing the question of Ethiopian loot taken by Fascist Italy it may be recalled that the Ethiopian Ministry of the Pen archives on Italy have still not been returned. The same is true of the Ethiopian aeroplane Tsehai, which is wanted as an exhibit for Addis Ababa’s new airport. International scholars have petitioned for the repatriation of both the archives and the ‘plane – but thus far in vain.
Returning to Aksum is however good to report that the city’s antiquities are being demarcated for all to see – and a considerably expanded Aksum Museum will shortly be inaugurated.
Study of Aksumite buildings, including rock-hewn churches, outside the city is however still far from complete – though we have learnt much since Abba Tewelde Medhen delivered his seminal paper on the rock-hewn churches of Tegray to the Third International Conference of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa in 1966.
Proceeding down the centuries again we come to Lalibela, site of further rock churches – another part of Ethiopia’s heritage. Lalibela is described in Ethiopian tourist literature as among of the wonders of the world. Though a major international tourist attraction, recent pioneering work by Michael Gervers, Ewa Balicka-Witakowska and others has shown how little we in fact know relatively about Lalibela history: We have up to now no answer to such questions as who conceived the Lalibela churchs, and when? Was the work carried out during a single reign – the reign of King Lalibela – or, as scholars are now suggesting, over a much longer time, perhaps by an on-going dynasty?
Lalibela, I would urge, is also seriously in need of a Museum: to explain the whole Ethiopian heritage of rock churches, as well as to relate those of Lalibela to others all over the country – from the vicinity of Asmara in the north to Goba (Bali) in the south.
And it is also worthy of note that the wall paintings in many of Lasta churches outside Lalibela remain largely unstudied.
In this context I would inject a specific plea for the systematic preservation of Ethiopia’s artistic heritage. Many church paintings are currently flaking, fading or otherwise deteriorating – or, perhaps even worse, are being re-painted. What is needed, I feel, is the methodical photographing of Ethiopian church paintings: wall by wall, and painting by painting – so as to produce as far as possible a complete record of the country’s artistic evolution.
At this point, I would suggest, we must, however, face one of the basic facts of Ethiopia’s heritage conservation. It is this: The country is economically poor, but culturally rich: if the opposite was the case there would be no problem, as a rich country could easily look after an insignificant heritage.
Nor would there be any problem if the country and its culture were both either rich or poor. As things stand, however, the country has a weak economic base – and a remarkably rich – and extensive – heritage, as I am discussing, to preserve
But to return to my broad historical-cum-geographical survey of Ethiopia’s heritage we come next to the antiquities of the Lake Tana-Gondar area.
It is gratifying to note that almost all the castles and other historic buildings in Gondar, which survived the Dervish incursions of the past, are fairly adequately preserved. Bu it is regrettable that no serious effort has yet been made to establish a Gondar Museum.
Outside the city the heritage situation is more serious. Virtually nothing has been done to stabilize the enigmatic castle of Guzara, the dating of which has been debated by Francis Anfray, LaVerle Berry and others. This fine old structure is steadily disintegrating, with the local inhabitants taking away its stones. Old Gorgora, and other Portuguese buildings, have meanwhile largely collapsed – many in the last two decades.
And the great palace at Danqaz, overlooking the lake, is likewise in a sorry state of preservation.
It is on the other hand worthy of note that not a few churches have converted their eqa-bets, or traditional store-houses, into fledging museums. Many display royal or other crowns, icons and illustrated manuscripts.
A number of local museum have also come into existence, most notably at Mekele, Jimma, Jinka, and Harar.
This development deserves every encouragement.
The situation in respect of the historic walled city of Harar is on the whole praise-worthy. A very creditable Arthur Rimbaud House – though the dwelling of an Indian merchant rather the French one of that name – has been established. The city’s famous walls would also seem to be in a reasonable condition – but we all hope there is a passage for yenas to go in and out!
Coming to Addis Ababa itself we encounter some of Ethiopia’s most serious problems of heritage management. The city was the site of numerous interesting buildings: many of them made of worked stone with wooden gables and balconies – buildings erected during the Menilek- Iyasu-Zawditu period. Perhaps a third of such structures (around 80) have been demolished in the last half century or so – leaving only about 120 remaining.
What is the more serious is that there is still no legislation to protect the capital’s historic buildings. Various lists of such edifices have been made, but no action has been taken to preserve listed structures.
To cite one recent case among many: The old house of Qanyazmach Belihu Degefu, popularly known as Shaka, was “listed”, and its historical interest recognized in an official publication of the city Municipality. The building is also featured in Milena Bastioni and Gian Paolo Chiari’s admirable Historical Guide to Addis Ababa antiquities. But last year the building was allowed to collapse – according to rumour it was actually pushed over. It was then finally demolished, and its valuable wood sold. Of the building nothing now remains.
Scarcely less serious is the question of the remarkable old house of Menilek’s Swiss adviser Alfred Ilg. New multi-storey housing structures have been erected bang in front of this building, and within thirty metres or so of it, thus destroying its vista. Report now has it that this historic building, in the absence of popular protest, will soon be demolished to make space for parking required by the new housing scheme.
All this, I would emphasise, is not an ordinary question of heritage preservation. It is a problem intimately bound up with Addis Ababa’s housing shortage:
The previous government crowded homeless people into the historic old buildings. These tenants, who are still there, do not adequately look after the properties, but cannot be moved without the provision of alternative accommodation – which is virtually impossible.
The present government is attempting to solve the housing problem by building a vast number of multi-storey condominia and other structures, and in the process are perhaps running the risk of forgetting the historic buildings – with the result that the necessary heritage decree is sill awaited.
It is however encouraging to note that Princess Mariam Senna has established an NGO: Addis Wubet, expressly dedicated to the preservation of the capital’s historic buildings – it is currently renovating the structure formerly occupied by the notable late 19th and early 20th century Indian merchant Mohomedally.
Focus on the country’s heritage has meanwhile been provided by the placing in one of the city’s squares of a replica of Emperor Tewodros’s cannon Sebastapol used in the battle of Maqdala in 1868.
The ensuing article will turn to a Consideration of Ethiopian Manuscripts and their Conservation
(Originally published in Capital newspaper)