Hajj Siraj Mohammed has spent five decades managing the famed al-Nejashi Mosque in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region, welcoming worshippers even during periods of conflict and famine.
But when war broke out last year in Tigray, he witnessed something he once thought impossible: The mosque itself, part of one of the oldest Muslim settlements in Africa, had become a target.
In late November Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers marched on the town of Negash, where the mosque is located, heading south towards the regional capital Mekele.
Cowering in a washroom, Siraj listened in horror as shells crashed into the mosque’s dome and meeting hall, leaving the compound strewn with dust and rubble.
“Not only us, but Muslims all over the world are shocked that this happened,” the frail 78-year-old told AFP.
It is now six months since fighting kicked off in Tigray, and the world is broadly aware of the massacres, gang rapes and other forms of human suffering it has wrought.
However as the war grinds on with no end in sight, experts are also sounding the alarm about the fate of the region’s revered places of worship, including monasteries and rock-hewn churches.
“I sometimes feel bad to talk about heritage because the stories we hear about what’s happening to the people are much worse,” said Alula Tesfay Asfha, a Tigray native and scholar of cultural heritage and urban planning at Japan’s University of Tsukuba.
“But collectively, as part of public history, heritage is very important.”
– Full damage unknown –
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray last November to topple the once-dominant regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
His government blames the TPLF for starting the war by attacking army camps, and has accused it of putting both civilians and heritage sites at risk.
In January state media asserted that pro-TPLF fighters had dug trenches near the al-Nejashi Mosque, drawing it into active conflict.
But when AFP reached the site in early March, residents said pro-TPLF fighters had fled the area long before pro-government soldiers arrived.
They also said Eritrean soldiers had looted the mosque compound.
There are fears that other heritage sites in Tigray have suffered similar — or even worse — damage.
Both Alula and Wolbert Smidt, a Tigray-focused ethnohistorian at the University of Jena in Germany, said they had received reports of gunfire and shelling at the sixth-century monastery of Debre Damo, north of the Tigray city of Adigrat.
More than 20 scholars voiced concern for the monastery in a January open letter calling for “the salvation of the cultural heritage of Tigray.”
“It is beyond any doubt that the conflict is causing heavy damage… but since most communication lines remain cut off and the information coming from the region is minimal, it is difficult to assess the real scope of the losses,” the letter said.
– Shattered norms –
Elsewhere in Tigray, religious sites have been turned into gruesome crime scenes.
In the town of Dengolat, hundreds of residents hid in a centuries-old Orthodox church as Eritrean soldiers allegedly gunned down more than 160 civilians in late November, survivors told AFP.
At around the same time, Eritrean soldiers massacred hundreds of civilians in the ancient Tigray city of Axum, a UNESCO World Heritage site, including Orthodox Christians gathering for a major festival, according to Human Rights Watch.
This kind of violence shatters a long-held norm in Ethiopia, where even in wartime churches are viewed as “a sort of parallel world” in which “protection is absolute,” Smidt said.
“But now the message seems to be, as traditional believers often understand it according to my reports: We are not attacking leaders, we are attacking the society. There are no more sacred places, no more places of refuge, no options to avoid the war.”
Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, says the military objective in Tigray is simply to detain and disarm TPLF leaders.
Eritrea has denied involvement in atrocities.
– ‘Another layer of history’ –
Other sites reportedly caught up in fighting are less prominent, but scholars still see their destruction as significant.
An attack on the Ligat Kirkos church, near the border with Eritrea, was likely part of an attempt by Eritrean soldiers to eradicate Tigrayan developments in territory the two countries have long contested, Alula said.
If confirmed, the scale of the damage to heritage sites would be unprecedented, said historian and Ethiopia expert Eloi Ficquet.
Proper recovery will require not just repairing physical sites, but also somehow mending ties between the state and the population, he said.
“If reconstruction is only material, a reconstruction only aimed at tourists, it would be disrespectful of the very nature of this heritage,” he said.
Alula, the Tigray academic in Japan, says he draws some hope from the notion that heritage sites, and the power they possess, can never be fully eliminated.
“Even if you destroy them, you are just adding another layer of history on top of them,” he said.
“Future generations will be able to tell the story of what happened during this time, and maybe they can learn from these problems in a way that leads to peace.”
He added: “At this point, though, it’s very hard.”