November 2, 2022, marked the end of a deadly two-year conflict in northern Ethiopia’s battered Tigray region. Two years of rampant ethnic and cultural cleansing that has claimed over half a million lives and left scores of cultural heritage sites in ruins. Amid a fragile truce, countless looted artifacts of the Orthodox Church are still missing. Back in early 2022, some of these were said to have popped up on eBay for as little as a few hundred US dollars before being removed by the e-commerce site. Meanwhile, the fates of innumerable sacred lives, buildings, and artifacts destroyed mainly by Ethiopian and invading Eritrean troops are still being willfully ignored by Western governments and international organizations.
That’s partly because this fragile peace agreement between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Ethiopian government makes little effort to protect heritage sites (and their inhabitants), rebuild what was damaged, and return what was stolen from Tigray. Back in January 2021, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali had agreed to rebuild the bombed Al Nejashi mosque alongside a church that had been damaged nearby. But by early 2022, Tigrayan philologist Hagos Abrha Abay confirmed that neither the government nor the international community had expressed any real political will to protect the region’s rich cultural heritage even after he’d pleaded with them to do so. If this tenuous peace deal is anything to go by, then it doesn’t look as though much has changed since then, which was also confirmed to me via a Facebook chat with a journalist in exile who asked to remain anonymous.
But what about all the looted objects on eBay or elsewhere in Ethiopia? Where are they scattered now? How could Tigrayans track them down? Even if they got their hands on some of these objects, would global restitution laws really protect Tigray’s patrimony? Abrha Abay also decried the loss of scores of ancient manuscripts, bibles, coins, and other relics. However, he is still convinced that through strong political will by agencies like the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Tigray could expect to retrieve these gems. But as the Nigerian writer Ayodeji Rotinwa explained in a 2020 article, international treaties on the looting of cultural objects are rife with loopholes, potentially allowing the trafficking of Tigray’s heritage to go unpunished.
This comes at a time when the slow restitution of African heritage stolen by greater colonial powers long ago is finally being exposed in mainstream media. But restitution alone does not solve the problem. The world-famous Axum obelisk was only given back to Tigray, in three parts, by Italy 68 years after Mussolini stole it after briefly invading Ethiopia in the 1930s. In a recent documentary Tigray At War, Cultural Heritage Under Siege, historian Michael Gervers says, “Ethiopia is destroying its own culture by destroying Tigrayan heritage.” Hagos also reminds us that it’s not always easy to discern what was looted recently, largely by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops, from what was pillaged by Western troops long ago, such as the obelisk of Axum, a royal funerary statue that was dismantled under Fascist Italy.
So, it comes as no surprise that authorities in Ethiopia or Europe have shied away from pressing for the return of looted goods back to Tigray. Those countries are still in denial about all of this ongoing cultural destruction. There’s also a growing sense that global allies simply don’t want to side with Tigray and alienate a country that’s been a darling of the West ever since Emperor Haile Selassie put Ethiopia on the global stage. Presumably with nowhere else to turn, a group called Friends of Tigray launched a change.org petition in early May, decrying all this senseless destruction. They pleaded with UNESCO and other organizations to do more to protect this region’s crumbling patrimony, including returning artifacts that were plundered. This just goes to show how seemingly blasé governments and international organizations are when it comes to safeguarding the vestiges of our shared heritage.
What remains clear is that Tigray’s cultural heritage is still under threat but remains an integral part of its people’s history and identity. Instead of getting caught up in lofty laws, acronyms, and empty protocol, let’s call out what’s been stolen by demanding its return. This would give meaning and continuity to all the lives lost and a civilization that’s being actively erased, even if the murky motives of governments and illicit art dealers stall the process. This genocide may have been hell-bent on wiping out any trace of Tigray as the cradle of one of the world’s ancient heritage sites. But cronyism alone can’t make the memories and stories of their existence vanish into thin air.