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Analysis: Axum, Ethiopia’s top tourist destination reels from impacts of devastating war

By Mihret G Kristos

Part of the Axum Obelisk buried in a dust (Photo:Social Media)

Addis Abeba – The ancient historical and archeological sites such as the UNESCO inscribed obelisks of Axum, the palace of Queen Sheba, and the tombs of king Kaleb that made the city of Axum, the leading tourist destination in Ethiopia are in peril following the two years war that ruined the Tigray region.

The palace of Queen Sheba locally known as Dungur which is believed to be constructed between the fourth and sixth century AD, is among the severely damaged historical sites according to local tourist guide Tekle Berhe.

Tekle told Addis Standard that the palace used to be visited by more than 200 tourists, mostly foreigners on a daily basis before the war broke out in Tigray.

“We are seriously concerned about the continuity of its existence, it needs quick renovation” Tekle noted with profound concern, adding that the palace which had a partial shelter that could protect it from natural and man-made tragedies is now in the open air exposed to further damage.

The renowned ancient obelisks of Axum and other ancient archeological sites such as the tomb of King Kaleb, and another tomb called the royal tomb are all in a critical condition alongside the palace of Queen Sheba.

The tomb of king Kaleb located at about a distance of 10 minutes of walk from where the Axum obelisks are found, is “in a very bad condition and unless it is maintained and protected within a short period of time, it may collapse”, Tekle added.

Most of these tourism sites were exposed to damage as they were abandoned and left without protection during the most part of the two years war in Tigray, head of the Axum city Culture and Tourism Office, Zeradawit Tsegay told Addis Standard.

“Heavy vehicles of more than five tons shouldn’t be passing near the obelisks but tanks and heavily loaded Urals have been transporting weapons by the sites, and nobody was concerned about the ancient historical monuments”, said Zeradawit.

The city had been closely working with the federal Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH) to preserve the historical sites prior to the war, but the cooperation discontinued following the war, according to Zeradawit.

Even though it has been six months since the cessation of hostilities agreement was reached between the government and the Tigrayan forces “no help is provided by the federal government and UNESCO” to restore and maintain these historical sites, and “we are waiting for their help” he added.

On Thursday, 25 May, the government of Italy announced a funding of two million euros for the preservation and enhancement of the Axum archaeological site in the Tigray regional state. The announcement was made by Italy’s ambassador to Ethiopia Agostino Palese, who visited the Tigray region.

In May 2019 there was a plan to renovate the Axum monuments by an Italian construction company with close to four million euros.  Addis Standard has learned that the renovation was dropped following the outbreak of the war in November 2020 in the region.

Locals clearing the site of Axum obelisks (Photo: Social Media)

Welu Gebrselassie, lecturer of Archaeological and heritages department at Axum University raised his fears that one of the Axum obelisks, Stelae 3, which is 24 meters in height and 160 tons in weight could eventually fall down.

Welu noted that the war had exposed the obelisks and the whole site to imminent danger and inability to respond to the damage on time is causing further damages.

Despite the damages to its historical and archeological sites, Axum also incurred significant loss of artifacts from its Archeological Museum. 

According to Tekle, the museum contains over two and half centuries old manuscripts made in the Sabean, Ge’ez languages, terracotta utensils, iron and bronze objects, bowls, incense burners, coins assumed to be gold, and silver and Ivory tusks among others.

Tekle said no one currently knows the whereabouts of these artifacts.

In February 2022 several reports indicated a surge of ancient Ethiopian artifacts appearing for sale on several global online platforms raising suspicions that they could have been plundered from churches during the conflict in Tigray.

Regardlessly, residents of Axum whose livelihoods directly or indirectly rely on tourism are optimistic that with due help from all concerned bodies the city would eventually return to its pre-war status.

Kasa Tesfu, one of the oldest sculptors of Axum, has been in the business of selling handmade souvenirs for tourists in the city for 30 years until the war broke out in Tigray.

“A number of tourists used to visit my shop to buy my handcrafts. But with the war everything went down. A lot of things have to be done from the government side to revive the tourism industry, and to do that peace is essential. Now we have peace, I hope with special attention from the government, Axum will again become a tourism hub”. 

Source: AS

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