The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Wednesday 28th November 2007

World Heritage Sites in Ethiopia

Given by - Lazare Eloundou Assomo

Reviewed by - Julian Kay


In a way Lazare Eloundou Assomo's illustrated lecture to the Society on the contribution of UNESCO to the preservation of Ethiopian cultural sites was perhaps the most important meeting of the current programme. For many of us who cannot visit Ethiopia as often as we would like it was maybe necessary to be reminded of what Ethiopia is really about. Axum, Lalibela and Gondar are only three of 8 sites happily since 1978 on UNESCO's World Heritage List. Each one can be a symbol of the entire country as the ETO posters make apparent - and rightly they deserve to be treasured by all mankind.

Of the 851 sites on the World Heritage List only 70 are in Africa. 50% of the sites are in Europe, and yet Africa, particularly East Africa, was the cradle of civilisation, the birthplace of Lucy (Dinqinesh). In recent years her 3.6 million years has been superseded by even older hominid remains found on the left bank of the Awash river. Doubtless as the speaker maintained there were undiscovered places which needed to be recognised.

In Axum there are the ruins of palaces and the stelae, and one of UNESCO's most wellknown concerns is the obelisk returned at long last from Rome. After a saga of disappointment and near misses - a new set of stamps was issued (in the late 1990s) to mark its return - it finally arrived at its place of origin in April 2005. It should be re-erected by September 2008 but the dismantling of the scaffolding around the stone won't take place before the end of December 2008.

Long ranked as a 'wonder of the world' the 11 mediaeval rock-hewn churches of Roha (in Lasta) now called Lalibela after the Zagwe monarch King Lalibela, have come to represent a symbolic counterpart of Jerusalem. North of the Yordanos is Debra Zeit (Mount of Olives) and Bethany, south, is Debra Tabor (Mount Tabor, the Mount of Transfiguration).

Whether or not they were built by foreign builders, the Portuguese, or with the help of angels working nights, each doing much more than the labour force could achieve during the day, the churches fit comfortably within the boundaries of Ethiopia's own artistic and architectural development. It is of immense significance for the local population and clergy who live and work there.

Lalibela is also a tremendous destination for tourists and therefore highly important for the economy. And this undoubtedly raises problems for 800-year-old buildings. How feasible would it be to dismantle the temporary shelters erected by UNESCO (at a cost of 9 million euros) in 2002 over five of the churches? The speaker told us what has been known for some time: that there were no adequate answers to the problems of clay and increasing humidity.

Mr Assomo, who is a programme specialist in the Africa Section of the World Heritage Centre of UNESCO, Paris, was the perfect diplomat and certainly knew that Ethiopia, like most of Africa, was not awash with funds to spend on ancient treasures and their upkeep. Hence there was no point in doing more than simply stating that, for example, Tiya, just beyond the Awash in Soddo, with its restored stelae, is managed from Wolkite 170 km away, and gets a guards' report every three months and no more than one visit a year from the expert.

First Published in News File Spring 2008

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