Fabled ark could be among ancient treasures in danger in Ethiopia’s deadly war

Tigray’s rich heritage is ‘highly endangered’, experts warn, as the conflict escalates near key cultural sites

Source: The Guardian

The sacred Book of Miracles in the Church of Our Lady of Zion in Aksum, Ethiopia - experts fear sacred texts, Bibles and treasures are being looted amid fighting in the Tigray region.
 The sacred Book of Miracles in the Church of Our Lady of Zion in Aksum, Ethiopia: experts fear sacred texts, Bibles and treasures are being looted amid fighting in the Tigray region. Photograph: agefotostock/Alamy

It has been hidden from view for thousands of years, and its whereabouts never proved. But if the Ark of the Covenant indeed rests in a chapel in northern Ethiopia, this extraordinary religious treasure could be at grave risk from fighting in the area.

The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, which reputedly houses the ark – a casket of gilded wood containing stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, according to the Bible – was the scene of a recent massacre of 750 people, reports filtering out of the country say.

International experts have raised the alarm over the security of the ark and other religious and cultural artefacts as a result of escalating conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.

They add: “There are reports of looting of manuscripts from Tigrayan churches and monasteries, and warnings that they will … be taken out of Ethiopia to be sold at antiquities markets in other countries.”

The conflict began in early November when Ethiopia’s Nobel peace prize-winning prime minister Abiy Ahmed sent federal forces to attack the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which ruled the country for almost three decades until 2018. Abiy has accused the TPLF, which has its own military, of seeking to destabilise Ethiopia and holding illegitimate elections. Troops from Eritrea, Ethiopia’s former enemy to the north, have crossed the border to fight alongside Abiy’s forces.

The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, in Aksum, said to be home to the Ark of the Covenant.
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 The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, in Aksum, said to be home to the Ark of the Covenant. Photograph: Neil McAllister/Alamy

Reliable reports of the fighting and its impact have been scarce due to a communications blackout and lack of humanitarian access, but the UN has warned of mass killings, the displacement of civilians and looting. More than 21,000 people have reportedly fled across the border to Sudan.

Heritage experts readily acknowledge that the humanitarian crisis must take priority over protection of the country’s artefacts and antiquities. But, said Alison Phipps, professor of languages and intercultural studies at Glasgow University, “these are sacred sites and of incalculable value to the history of Christianity and its development in Ethiopia in particular.

“Attacks on cultural heritage are devastating in the context of war as they speak of the destruction of the soul of a people, of things which have endured through the ancestors.”

Catherine D’Andrea, director of the Eastern Tigray archaeological project at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, said the region was “truly blessed with numerous and varied forms of tangible and intangible cultural patrimony”.

Despite the absence of verifiable information, damage from the conflict to the recently reconstructed 7th-century mosque complex at Negash had been clearly documented, said D’Andrea. “It appears that the structure was shelled and images from within are suggestive of looting.”

At the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Aksum, fleeing civilians have said the aim of the attack, in which hundreds of people hiding in the church were brought out and shot, was to remove the ark to Addis Ababa, according to Martin Plaut, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

The ancient Debre Damo monastery, which dates from the 6th century, is reported to have been attacked.
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 The ancient Debre Damo monastery, which dates from the 6th century, is reported to have been attacked. Photograph: Tim Wege/Alamy

The ark is believed by Ethiopian Orthodox Christians to have been brought to Aksum by Menelik, the son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon of Israel, after Jerusalem was sacked in 586/587BC and Solomon’s temple destroyed. It has since been guarded by a succession of monks who are forbidden until death to leave the church grounds.

As well as the potential threat to the ark, Eritrean troops were “looting everything they can get their hands on” in the region, Plaut told the Observer. “They’ve also gone through some monasteries and churches, taking Bibles and icons back across the border. It’s absolutely appalling.”

The monastery of Debre Damo, dating from the sixth century and containing painted ceilings and walls, is also reported to have been attacked.

2 comments

  1. In his master piece analysis of the current situation in ethiopia Gebrekirstos Gebremeskel stated that “Tigray is the origin of almost everything held dear by the Amhara national narrative for Ethiopia…”. Read here.

    “http://www.ethiopia-insight.com/2020/12/18/the-war-on-tigray-a-multi-pronged-assault-driven-by-genocidal-undercurrents/ “

    The on-going loot for every thing dear to #tigrepeople culture is the final phase of the long ago set grandiose plane of #amhara. #abiy is the master looter and should be held accountable.

    All the manuscripts and other historical documents will be forged in line to the #amhara claim of being the root of every thing Ethiopian; and those that can not be forged will all be burned.
    Experts at Hiob Ludolf Centre for Ethiopian , Eritrean Studies at Hamburg University and the likes should lobby for the saving of these historical materials ; and should also campaign for the save keeping of any copies of these material existing any where else in the world ; as many will be forged beyond recognitions and many others burned – this might serve ensuring their existance.

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