Source: Mondiaal Nieuws

© Meghana Kuppa
The ancient Ge’ez script, which is kept at the archaeological site in Yeha. The site is said to have been recently looted by Eritrean soldiers. © Meghana Kuppa

Bombs recently opened a hole in one of the oldest mosques in the world. It is located in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, where a terrible war has been going on for more than two months. There are testimonies about possible war crimes, but also about the destruction and theft of important world heritage.

On Tuesday December 15, soldiers approached Maryam Tsion Church in Aksum, Tigray’s cultural capital. They were Ethiopian federal troops and Amharic militias. The church was packed. There were possibly a thousand people in and around the building.

The advancing soldiers caused a lot of commotion, also because the Maryam Tsion Church is not just any church. It would, according to the Ethiopians, house the Biblical Ark of the Covenant. That Ark is a sacred chest in which the two stone plates with the Ten Commandments are kept. Only a monk, appointed as guardian, may see them.

The troops forced all people onto the square in front of the church. Then they opened fire on the crowd. According to witnesses, 750 people died. Although independent research groups could not yet verify that number, because they are still refused by the Ethiopian government.

The knowledge center Europe External Program with Africa (EEPA) reported several times about the confrontation in its situation reports on the region. A witness with experience in war zones spoke to people at the EEPA Knowledge Center and said that he had “never experienced such a degree of inhumanity.”

In war

The soldiers may have thought that members of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front were hiding in the Maryam Tsion Church. When you are in a church and you are unarmed, you are normally safe in wartime. That this was not the case now is a break with the Ethiopian tradition and a dangerous situation, ‘ says Martin Plaut , journalist and Ethiopia expert.

Among the most important monuments in the city are obelisks up to 33 meters high, which are about 1700 years old.

Since November 4, the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies, supported by Amharic militias, have been fighting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The conflict is creating a disastrous humanitarian situation in the region. Almost 60,000 Tigreans have already fled to neighboring Sudan. According to the United Nations, 2.3 million people, more than half of the population in the Tigray region, are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.

Besides people, important heritage sites are also not spared the violence. The cultural capital of Tigray, Aksum is the historical capital of the Aksumite Empire. The archaeological sites in and around Aksum are on the list of Unesco World Heritage.

The most important Aksumite monuments in the city are the Steles, obelisks of up to 33 meters high that are about 1700 years old. They are a symbol of Ethiopian identity.

The EEPA has already reported heavy fighting in and around Aksum. Due to the extremely scarce reports from Tigray, it remains to be seen to what extent these important heritage sites have been affected by the violence.

© Meghana Kuppa

Worrying stories from Tigray

News of the Aksum massacre did not reach the outside world until the beginning of January. After all, large parts of Tigray remain disconnected from the internet. In addition, the Ethiopian authorities still do not allow journalists into the region. Reports of possible war crimes and damage to infrastructure are growing, but these are difficult to verify.

“There are no reports that the Maryam Tsion Church has been looted or destroyed,” says journalist Martin Plaut. ‘It is very difficult to find out exactly what is going on in the region. People literally have to walk hundreds of kilometers to tell their story. ‘

The little information that does become known comes from Tigreans who, usually on foot, reach Sudan or Mekele, the regional capital of the Tigray region. From there they can share photos, videos and their story with journalists or on social media. Most of the reports from the EEPA and most of the information about incidents in the area are based on these testimonials.

Al-Nejashi Mosque looted

A historic building that was certainly damaged is the Al-Nejashi Mosque. In recent weeks, outrage has arisen from the Ethiopian diaspora and the international Muslim community when reports and photos of damage to that historic mosque were circulated.

The Al-Nejashi is one of the oldest mosques in Africa. The EEPA reported on December 18 that the mosque was bombed and looted by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers. Several people were killed, also according to the knowledge center, because they wanted to stop the looting of the mosque.

Religion and Heritage in Ethiopia

Many Ethiopians are religious, faith is an important part of society. Atheism does exist, but it is often taboo. Ethiopia is home to many religious buildings and sites, often preserving relics and sacred pieces of great cultural importance.

According to the CIA’s World Factbook, Christianity is the largest religion in Ethiopia, with 43.8 percent Ethiopian Orthodox, 22.8 percent Protestants, and 0.7 percent Catholics. They are followed by Islam (31.3 percent of Ethiopians). There is also an old but small Jewish community.

The attack is said to have taken place on November 26. According to an article by the Middle East Eye news site, artifacts such as religious manuscripts, books and letters dating back to the seventh century were also stolen. An adjoining building containing the remains of followers of the Prophet Muhammad has also been damaged.

It was only after the photos of the destruction had been circulated that the Ethiopian government wanted to confirm that the destruction had taken place and promised to have the building restored.https://platform.twitter.com/embed/index.html?creatorScreenName=mondiaalnieuws&dnt=false&embedId=twitter-widget-0&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1345088407068958720&lang=nl&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.mo.be%2Fnieuws%2Foorlog-tigray-gaat-gepaard-met-vernieling-en-plundering-van-cultureel-erfgoed&siteScreenName=mondiaalnieuws&theme=light&widgetsVersion=ed20a2b%3A1601588405575&width=550px

Al Nejashi, the oldest mosque in Africa and a UNESCO inscribed Tigray’s world heritage, is destroyed by war criminals Isaias Afeworki of Eritrea and @AbiyAhmedAli . #TigrayGenocide pic.twitter.com/L2AsDtU4ya– Alula Solomon (@Alula_Solomon) 

January 1, 2021

The government says it attacked the mosque after Tigray soldiers dug trenches around it. Apart from this statement, the further circumstances of the incident are not yet known. What is certain is that the conflict with this attack also affected one of Ethiopia’s most revered religious heritage sites.

Maryam Tsion Church and Al Nejashi Mosque are the most sacred places for Christians and Muslims in Ethiopia respectively. According to journalist Martin Plaut, ‘the incidents surrounding these heritage sites are an important reason why journalists and media are not allowed to enter the region. That only happens when there is something to hide. ‘


Since the beginning of the recent war, the EEPA has been reporting serious looting in Tigray. Soldiers carry out raids: they clear homes (and even take windows and doors with them) and steal important cultural heritage from churches, mosques, monasteries and archaeological sites.

An important archaeological site of looting is the one in Yeha in the northeast of Tigray, fifty kilometers east of Aksum. There is the oldest standing structure in Ethiopia, the temple of Yeha. The temple is said to have been built around 700 BC. In addition, there is an Ethiopian Orthodox monastery in Yeha where ancient Ethiopian Christian writings are kept.

© Meghana Kuppa
The oldest standing structure in Ethiopia, the temple of Yeha. It is said to have been built around 700 BC. Yeha’s sita, where he is located, is threatened by the ongoing war in the region. © Meghana Kuppa
© Meghana Kuppa
A liturgical text in the Ge’ez script, which is kept in an Ethiopian Orthodox monastery at the archaeological site of Yeha. © Meghana Kuppa

Witnesses say the church at the archaeological site of Yeha was looted by Eritrean troops, an EEPA situation report dated Dec. 31. The school in Yeha, where people took shelter, was also said to have been bombed. Nothing is known about victims. “There has been destruction or looting in Yeha, but it is not clear what exactly happened,” says Martin Plaut.

What exactly happened in Yeha is not known. But there are many reports of ritual books and other artifacts stolen from religious buildings, such as the Al-Nejashi Mosque. The chance that ancient writings in Yeha have been stolen or destroyed is real.

The role of neighboring Eritrea

According to witnesses, Eritrean troops play a key role in the looting of Tigray. “Before the war broke out, Eritrean trucks were stationed on the border with Tigray,” says Martin Plaut. ‘We didn’t know why. But recently there have been reports of trucks full of goods from Tigray leaving the region for warehouses in Eritrea. Local church leaders are asking not to buy any of those Tigray properties if they were to be sold. ‘


Ethiopian diaspora in Belgium divided over conflict in Tigray: ‘I hope things will be all right’The conflict between the leaders of Eritrea and the Tigray region dates back to the revolutionary war in the 1990s against the communist Derg regime. The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) then fought side by side with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Ultimately, however, there was a split between the two parties and Eritrea continued as an independent state.

Since Abiy Ahmed took office as Ethiopia’s Prime Minister in 2018, and since the TPLF lost importance in Ethiopian politics, an alliance has been formed between Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki. They have a common dislike for the TPLF. The fact that Eritrea is now being accused of large-scale looting in Tigray appears to be a continuation of the old feud between the EPLF and the TPLF.