The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

The Ethiopian Heritage Fund

Author - Blair Priday


The Ethiopian Heritage Fund was set up as a charity in the UK in 2005 to work with the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church to help conserve the church treasures in Ethiopia and to provide advice and education on their maintenance. The Fund also aims to raise awareness of these beautiful objects to increase tourism to rural areas. The Fund is entirely financed by donations and by those involved giving their expertise to the projects.

Monks from the Monastery of Saint Stephen, Hayq, holding the restored centre panel of their Icon
of Mary
Monks from the Monastery of Saint Stephen, Hayq, holding the restored centre panel of their Icon of Mary
Photo © Ethiopian Heritage Fund

In October 2006 work was undertaken to conserve Ethiopia's two oldest known manuscripts, the Abuna Garima Gospels. These are located in the Monastery of Abuna Garima near Adwa, Tigray. Edges of the illustrated pages were conserved and their gilded binding repaired. Parchment samples were radiocarbon dated to the 6th century. At the same time a 15th century masterpiece, the Icon of Mary (The One Who Listens), was cleaned and repaired at the Monastery of Saint Stephen, Hayq. Also the charity provided twelve glass showcases for the display of icons, manuscripts and crosses for a small museum that had been built at the Debre Estifanos monastery on Lake Hayq.

Rema Icon after conservation
Rema Icon after conservation
Photo © Ethiopian Heritage Fund

In January 2007, a large 15th century Marian Panel, the Rema Icon, was cleaned and repaired. This icon, situated on the tiny Island of Rema in Lake Tana, was suffering from the dampness which resulted in the progressive flaking away of the fine paint layers. A split in the panel was also stabilised. This and the Hayq icon are the two most celebrated icons in Ethiopia.

The fan of Debre Selam, one of six surviving 15th century liturgical fans, was also conserved in 2007. This folded parchment fan is decorated with paintings of the Madonna and Child, angels, apostles, saints and figures of the Old Testament. It was extremely delicate and needed to be reconstructed from fragments.

In May 2009, the charity financed the publication of Ethiopian Church Treasures and Faith. This book combined the work of both Ethiopian and European scholars and clerics. It describes and illustrates many of the greatest Ethiopian works of art never published before.

In June 2009 the charity funded the purchase and return to Ethiopia of the cross reputed to belong to the 6th century Saint Abuna Yared, who is known as the father of Ethiopian church music.

Paintings flaking off the walls in Debre Tsion church, Tigray
Paintings flaking off the walls in Debre Tsion church, Tigray
Photo © Ethiopian Heritage Fund

The charity has identified a number of important projects for 2010, the main one being to try to stabilise the wall paintings in Debre Tsion church in Tigray. This is a late 14th or early 15th century monastic cliff church, hewn from the rock by the monk Abreham and his disciples. Shortly after the church was completed the walls, pillars and ceilings were covered with paintings of figures from the New Testament. Eighty per cent of these paintings, covering more than 500 square metres, can still be seen today. These murals are one of only two ensembles of this period still surviving in Ethiopia and are of great cultural and economic importance. Water infiltration has now caused the top layer of rock and the undercoating to disintegrate in many places. This erosion has now reached a critical stage and, unless a consolidating campaign is launched very soon, ten per cent of the murals are expected to disappear within a year.

Illustration in the Maaqudi Gospel Book
Illustration in the Maaqudi Gospel Book
Photo © Ethiopian Heritage Fund
Lime wash splashed paintings at the church of Bahera
Lime wash splashed paintings at the church of Bahera
Photo © Ethiopian Heritage Fund

Another project is to repair a Gospel book in the church of Maaqudi, near Debre Mar in Tigray. This 17th century church, dedicated to Saint John of the Apocalypse, contains a 16th century Gospel, believed to have been brought to the church by the monks who built it. Loosely bound into the book are two illustrations from a late 15th century Acts of Martyrs. These are in dire need of preservation. The parchment needs repairing and the pages rebound.

The third major project planned is to clean the wall paintings in the 15th century church of Bahera, near the town of Hawzien. This is one of the most extraordinary rock hewn churches found in this area of Ethiopia. In the early 1990s the walls were white washed and the lime-based wash was splashed over the wall paintings of saints on the pillars and sanctuary of the church and these now need to be carefully cleaned.

Other projects targeted include:

The Fund would appreciate any help with funding these projects.

For more details, or to make a donation, see the Fund's website: www.ethiopianheritagefund.org

The Ethiopian Heritage Fund is a Registered Charity, Charity number: 1110969

Part of the central panel of the 15th century Icon of Mary at the Monastery of Saint Stephen, Lake Hayq, during cleaning
Part of the central panel of the 15th century Icon of Mary at the Monastery of Saint Stephen, Lake Hayq. The dramatic effect that cleaning and conservation had can be seen very clearly in this detail of the face of the Christ child. The work was undertaken by the English specialist Laurence Morrocco and sponsored by the Ethiopian Heritage Fund.
Photo © Ethiopian Heritage Fund

First Published in News File Spring 2010

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