Friday February 19 2021, 12.01am, The Times
Panic that occupying troops would plunder their most sacred treasure pushed the devout in Ethiopia’s holiest city to race into harm’s way to defend it, according to a witness to atrocities committed in the country’s civil war.
As clashes broke out between soldiers and rebel militia in Axum, worshippers rushed to the church where the Ark of the Covenant is reputedly secured and in which hundreds were seeking refuge.
“When people heard the shooting they ran to the church to give support to the priests and others who were there protecting the ark,” Getu Mak, 32, a university lecturer, told The Times. “Certainly some of them were killed for doing that.”
The Ark of the Covenant, containing the tablets with the Ten Commandments, was carried to Jerusalem by King David
Described in the Bible as a gilded wood casket housing stone tablets etched with the Ten Commandments, the ark has been in the church’s compound since the 1960s. Its defenders had armed themselves only with “cobbles and sticks”, witnesses told a researcher from the Europe External Programme with Africa, which is investigating reports of atrocities.
Up to 800 people were killed in and around the Church of St Mary of Zion at the end of November by pro-government forces, according to an account given by a deacon at Axum’s most revered site.
Bodies were left on the city’s streets for days, drawing hyenas down from the nearby hills to scavenge. When soldiers left Axum, mass burials were held, according to witness statements.
Reports of the destruction and looting of priceless artefacts by troops since the conflict began in early November in the northern, heritage-rich Tigray region had prompted fears that the ark would be targeted, Getu added. “Everyone was worried it would be taken, to Eritrea, to [the capital] Addis Ababa, or just disappear, including me.”
The ark is said to be held at the Church of St Mary of Zion in AxumAP
He watched the mayhem on November 28 from his city centre hotel room, more than a week after government troops and those backing them from neighbouring Eritrea had descended on the city after heavy bombardment.
A day after the killings at and near the St Mary of Zion church, Eritrean forces went between homes, ancient ruins and churches looking for those sympathetic to the renegade Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
Getu said: “There was no mercy shown, they didn’t care if you were young, old, whatever. They killed people and took everything they could — from the electronics shop, the bars. There were many corpses.”
A shutdown of the internet and mobile phone networks has cut Tigray off since Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, deployed the army against the area’s leadership. News of rumoured atrocities, including scores of rapes and massacres committed by both sides, are only now filtering out.
Abiy, 44, who won the 2019 Nobel peace prize, declared victory against the TPLF in late November after pro-government forces took the regional capital, Mekele. His government has denied the involvement of Eritrea but is now being forced to row back on claims that no civilians had been killed in the campaign.
This week the foreign ministry admitted that “rape, plunder, callous and intentional mass killings” could occur in a conflict where “many are illegally armed”. It blamed Tigrayan militia for leaving the region “vulnerable”.
Humanitarian organisations have warned of a looming hunger crisis on the same scale as that seen in the mid-Eighties, which prompted the Band Aid fundraiser. Eighty per cent of Tigray’s population of six million remain cut off from help, the UN said.
Heritage experts acknowledge that a worsening humanitarian emergency must be prioritised over Ethiopia’s historical riches but the vulnerable artefacts are valuable to more than the Tigray region or the country.
Alessandro Bausi, an expert in Ethiopic texts and manuscripts at Hamburg University, said that the “cultural annihilation” being waged in Tigray should alarm the world.
How the ark got to Axum
In the Book of Exodus, God commanded Moses to “make an ark of acacia wood” after delivering the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. A gilded ark, or chest, was duly fashioned by the Israelites and in it Moses placed the two stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. The Old Testament says that the ark was held at the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem for centuries but vanished after Jerusalem was sacked in 586 or 587BC. According to Ethiopia’s Orthodox Christians the ark was taken to Axum by Menelik, son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon of Israel, in the 10th century BC. For the past 50 years it is said to have been been housed in the Chapel of the Tablet, designed by Emperor Haile Selassie, in the holy city of Axum in Tigray. No one is permitted to have access to the relic apart from a solitary monk.