Deliberate Destruction of Tigray’s World Heritages

By Hagos Abrha Abay(PhD), September 23, 2021

Besides the human rights abuse, heritage destruction has been part of the brutalities in the Tigray Crises less reported though. Both tangible and intangible heritages were devastated; members of Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF), Ethiopian National Defense Forces (EDF), and Amhara Forces (AF) have been transgressing and demolishing cultural norms, religious traditions, and good social values. Tigray children and women, monks, and clergies happened to have a bad experience of their cult vandalized after observing raping of teenagers and elderly women, and when those soldiers abruptly enter to temples and interrupting the mass service with brutal killings and intimidations of the clergies.

According to the Orthodox tradition, churches and monasteries were used as sanctuaries during natural disasters and humanitarian crises; however, these times, monks were cast out of their cloisters and priests were brutally killed around their religious places; and these challenged the authentic faith of the believers and creates psycho-social crises. The monastery of Waldibba (established 14th -15th CE) found in Western Tigray has more than 18 sections of monastic settlements of more than 1000 monks and is estimated to be 90 nuns (from all over Ethiopia, mainly from Tigray).

During the war crises, hundreds of Tigray origin monks were singled out and cast for exiling; they had to flee to various cities in Tigray and hiding in caves and potholes. Abba Gebre Selassie, among the monks, was said to have been killed in the monastery, while praying. Some other monks also died of hunger and long-distance travel. A 71-year-old, Abba Gebre Wahid is among those who died in such a tragic situation and was later buried in Aksum St. Merry Church (the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the place of the Ark of the covenant).

Monks of Waldibba Monastery harassed, tortured, forcibly evicted from the monastery; many among them also killed by Amhara forces;
Funeral Ceremony of Abba Gebre Wahid at Aksum

Not only intimidation and tortures but also a lot of monks, priests, deacons were persecuted in various places and different times. According to the Tigray Orthodox Church diocese report at the beginning of February 2021, 326 members of the church priests were randomly and callously killed. Moreover, many are said to have been killed within the months after that. The brutal soldiers were also committed enough to annihilate precious and tangible rare heritages and to ruthlessly murder civilians and religious leaders who, at the same time, are guardians and preservers of the heritages. Generally, hundreds of the churches and monasteries are believed to be damaged; the following list of religious places are among the few wells confirmed (according to local sources).

NoMonastery/ChurchLocationDamage/BrutalityActor/s
1Samuel QoyetsaNorthwest TigrayPriests were killed; heritages were looted.AF, ENDF  
2Debre AbbayNorthwest TigrayCivilians killed; heritages looted.AF
3Abune ThomasNorthwest TigrayHeritages were looted; several civilians were killed nearby.EDF
4Abune ZerʾabrukNorthwest TigrayDestroyed from shelling.AF
5Maryam MedhanitAddi Da‘ro (Northwest Tigray)Shelled.EDF, ENDF
6Enda Abune AregawiAddi Da‘ro (Northwest Tigray)Destroyed from shelling.EDF, ENDF
7Merʿawe KirstosHirmi (Northwest Tigray) 40 civilians,10 priests were killed; manuscripts were looted.AF, ENDF
8WaldibbaNorthwest Tigray 100s of monks were cast out; some were tortured, killed, and exiled. AF
9Abune AbrahamGerʿalta (Eastern Tigray)The monastery was shelled by bombs.EDF, ENDF
10Abune YimʿattaGerʿalta (Eastern Tigray)Shelled, 19 civilians were killed and 2 injured.EDF
11Asira MetiraEastern TigrayShelled and heritages were looted.EDF
12Tsetshi KidanemihretCentral TigrayShelled.EDF
13Enda-AmanuelWuqro (Eastern Tigray)Damaged.EDF
14Enda Qirqos LigatZalambesa (EasternTigray)Destroyed of shelling.EDF
15Mesqele KirstosAsimba (Eastern Tigray)Damaged from shelling. EDF
16Enda Medhane-alem GuʿtoloEastern TigrayShelled; 61 civilians (5 of them priests) were massacred. EDF
17Maryam Dengelet Edaga Hamus (Eastern Tigray)More than 150 civilians Massacred.EDF
18Debre DamoEastern TigrayShelled; one person was killed.EDF
19Enda-Abba TadewosTemben (Central Tigray)Damaged and vandalized.ENDF
20Enda Abba NobTemben (Central Tigray)Shelled and vandalized.ENDF
21Enda Qirkos FiredashumEastern TigrayThe church was destroyed, heritages burned down.EDF
22Yiha MonasteryYiha (Central Tigray)Heritages looted.EDF
23Abba TsihmaCentral TigrayShelled.EDF
24Maryam WuqroNebelet (Central Tigray)Shelled.EDF
25Abba YohaniEdaga Arbi (Central Tigray)Shelled.ENDF
26Qeretse MaryamSamre (Southwest Tigray)Air bombed.ENDF, AF
27Mariam QuihaMekelle (Tigray’s capital)Soldiers intimidated priests during the mass service.ENDF
28Abune Aregawi QuihaMekelle (Tigray’s capital)Ethiopian soldiers camped there for short time and used to smoke cigarettes.ENDF
29Mikael Addi MosnoSoutheastern TigrayShelled by the Ethiopian soldersENDF
List of religious sites damaged, vandalized, and looted by invading armies
Enda Qirqos Firedashum, (Photo courtesy: Mahibere Deqiqe Estifanos)

Some of the destructions can, of course, be resulted from casualties, but most of them seem to be intentionally orchestrated and demolished by the plan. That is why most Tigray heritage icons were targeted: Aksum (the placement of the Ark of the Covenant, and origin and center of Christianity in Ethiopia), al-Negash(Nejashi) Mosque (a symbol for Tigray as first Islamic settlement in Africa), Debre Dammo (the first Sub-Saharan African Christian monastery), Waldibba (the biggest and most well-established hermits’ desert and monks’ monastery in Ethiopia), Maryam Dengelet (newly discovered ancient value ladened church), Debre Abbay (a benchmark for traditional school in the flew of Qiddase, mass service), Samuel Qoyetsa (one of the places for the origin of the Stephanites, 16th-century social revolutionary monks) are made susceptible for the hostility. Several tangible heritages including manuscripts were intentionally destroyed and burned down.

The church of Enda Qirqos Firedashum was intentionally destroyed, and its heritages burned down: many medieval manuscripts and ecclesiastical materials (like crosses, liturgic fan, and others) were destroyed by the Eritrean soldiers. Around the village of Firedashum (Eastern Tigray) in general, 61 civilians (5 of them priests) were massacred on January 7, 2021, on the Ethiopian Christmas holiday. One old man was also said to have been tied for three days in front of his three killed children in the same village. During the war in Tigray, various forces/entities had their respective concern: land resource, religion, power, the hegemony of historical narratives, etc; hence, all these forces indiscriminately demolished the Christian and Islamic heritages.

Enda Qirqos Lǝgat (Zalambesa, Eastern Tigray)-LT Al-Nejashi(Negash) Mosque- RT

The identity of any entity is the sum of three things: the name of the entity, a matter of the entity, and the transaction/behavior/vibration of that entity. ‘Tigray’ the name + the matter/geography + the people and their social interaction made Tigrayan Identity. The third one is the most important as life/motor of the whole identity, which is again made up of language, culture, history, and heritage. And if people are denied owning and entertaining their values, the catastrophe turns out into a question of existence as an entity. Cultural values and beliefs were means of quantum healings during trauma and social crises; based on the Tigray culture, for example, religious institutions, spiritual places, folk belief performing settings, etc were used to be the last hopes as sanctuaries during war crises and natural disasters. Thus, not only the merciless killings of people but also the brutal damaging of cultural heritages creates long-lasting psychological crises; however, this is an understated crime in the international media. Not only religious places but also historical museums and palaces are ruined. Tigray Martyrs’ Memorial Museum (TMMM), a treasure of 17years of revolutionary history, and the palace of Emperor Yohannes IV (Ethiopian king in the19th C) are found in Mekelle, Tigray’s capital. They are among the most important historical figures in Ethiopia (mainly Tigrayan history). They are also wonderful heritage sites; Emperor Yohannes Palace was changed into a museum under the UNESCO mission in later times (Tghat) . During the war, most of the tangible heritages preserved inside the museum were looted and destroyed by the Ethiopian forces.

Palace Museum of Emperor Yohannes IV

The Tigray Martyrs’ Memorial Museum (TMMM) was found near the Tigray Martyrs’ Monument (TMM), which is a symbol for the revolutionary struggle (in the 1970s) for the introduction of a federal democratic republic governance system into Ethiopia for the first time. However, this important historical figure has been obliterated by the Ethiopian soldiers; all the tangible memorial heritages were looted and totally damaged (1) their destruction of both heritages did not result from shelling casualties; it was rather employed by the plan after the members of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces controlled Mekelle, and there were not any firing exchanges at the city center at the time. All the historical heritages of the Martyrs’ Museum were looted and destroyed. Moreover, after TPLF, the elected Tigray party leading the government and its forces left Mekelle, the Ethiopian forces looted and destroyed all the historical documents, archives, and records preserved from the TPLF office, which is nearby the museum.

Before Destruction
After Destruction

A draft policy of the International Criminal Court (ICC) published on 22 March 2021 article 8:41 says, “War crimes fall under the Court’s jurisdiction under article 8 of the Statute, and at present may offer the most straightforward means to address intentional harm to cultural heritage—not least since it is well established that these crimes not only address violence to the person but also to property.” ICC put the cultural heritage crimes under five broad categories: the directing of attacks against certain protected objects; the directing of attacks against civilian objects; the destruction or seizure of property (of all kinds) belonging to certain persons; the appropriation of property for private or personal use (pillage); and other crimes which may nonetheless indirectly relate to cultural heritage. During the ongoing Tigray war crises, all the above categories of crime have been committed.

According to the general provision of the “Policy Document for the Integration of a Sustainable Development Perspective into the Processes of the World Heritage Convention” (UNESCO, 2015), cultural heritages rights are treated under human rights. Nonetheless, nothing has been done by the concerned bodies about the damage of Tigray cultural heritages. Without their heritage and culture, people can exist, but they cannot live; hence the people of Tigray are now in extreme demand to exist and live. It is always expected that the human rights offices, ICC, UNESCO, BlueShield institutions, Amnesty International, and other responsible bodies would give serious attention to the heritage damages. Tigray heritages, from the worldwide registered up to the unknown local material culture, are global heritages as world history without those heritages, mainly the written artifacts, is incomplete.

Therefore, especially UNESCO must be vigilant for a thorough and detailed investigation to be conducted on the systematic and widespread destruction of unique heritages in Tigray; and dedicate itself to the restitution and rehabilitation of the heritages later during the post-war period.

Original source: GNN

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