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  Ethiopia has one of the richest and best-documented histories in the world and it is the site of some of the oldest human settlements in Africa.  With eight entries on UNESCO's register of World Heritage Sites, no other African country has more sites listed than Ethiopia.

Though the beginning of recorded Ethiopian history dates to the reported meeting, around 1000 BC, of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, relatively recent discoveries have shown that it has a rich prehistory as well.  Early Christian influences date to around 400 AD and Islamic influences followed several hundred years later.  These have had a profound impact on Ethiopian culture and traditions which have long contributed to Ethiopia's material wealth by producing illuminated parchment manuscripts and icons, and by building churches, monasteries and mosques.

Ethiopians are justifiably proud of this heritage; it is, however, in danger.  Many national treasures are poorly protected due to the lack of adequate space and insufficient resources available for storage and restoration, while others are being taken out of the country illegally.

While evidence of Ethiopia's culture and history is found in its ancient monuments, cities, and prehistoric sites, its living cultures are reflected in the work of architects, musicians, artists, poets, writers, artisans and crafts people.  Strong traditions have long contributed to Ethiopia's material wealth by producing illuminated parchment manuscripts, leatherwork, metalwork, jewelry, basketry, woodwork, and pottery.  Much of this rich heritage is being eroded by rapid development and growth, and ancient skills are being lost as markets and values for artisanal crafts change over time.

Building and crafts skills, healing traditions and language skills are similarly being lost with time.  Expressions of artistic traditions are at the risk of degenerating into 'airport art' to meet the demands of a limited market, constrained from innovating into new forms of material culture.  There is also a growing concern about the need to prevent the further loss of cultural artifacts which are stolen from churches, monasteries and other public places, and their sale on international art markets.

Rapid development, too, poses a significant threat to the loss of ancient sites and cultures.  Planned new hydroelectric dams and roads may obliterate ancient settlement and archeological sites, long before there is any understanding of what might be lost.  There is a growing recognition of the need better to document these cultural sites, and then to mitigate the potential negative impacts of further development.

Until recently, few of Ethiopia's historic sites had been managed with the view that they have much to offer to the national, regional and local economies.  Despite their significant influence on Ethiopian heritage, these rich centers of culture are surrounded by communities of poverty.

It is a symbol of maturity and wisdom when a nation embarks upon a course of action to preserve the visible evidences of its heritage and cultural achievements.  Ethiopia is singularly rich in such evidence and, increasingly, the significance of these riches is becoming known on an international scale.  Elsewhere in Africa, the loss of cultural heritage assets - language, music, dress, the arts, architecture, religious traditions - was accelerated by colonisation.  In Ethiopia, the loss of cultural traditions has been accelerated primarily by neglect.

  Our Response

Our Heritage Project has the three-fold objective of (1), protecting Ethiopia's unique, historic artefacts and the oral histories of communities and individuals; (2), promoting Ethiopian arts and architecture and (3), spurring the sustainable development of local crafts.  Poverty alleviation is a specific focus in each of these elements.

Our objectives are:

  • to encourage the documentation and safe storage of artefacts which we do by providing training and advice, and providing appropriate facilities,
  • recording the oral histories of people and communities, especially those who have lived through some of the events which mark Ethiopia's turbulent past,
  • to raise awareness of artistic endeavour by documenting and, where feasible, publishing the work of painters, musicians, poets and authors, and
  • to bring the work of local craftspeople to a suitable market in northern towns and in the capital, Addis Abeba.

In the north of Ethiopia, the country's historic artefacts - including imperial regalia, historical documents, manuscripts, icons and ecclesiastical vestments - are under the guardianship of isolated monasteries and churches.  Unsupported by the hierarchy, the monks and priests are left to fend for themselves where, unequipped to cultivate their own food or earn an income, many are destitute and must depend on the generosity of the desperately poor communities they serve.

Of the artisanal crafts development component, we recognise the idea that culture and sustainable development are closely linked and that cultural heritage can be a theme of job creation and development.  Craftspeople traditionally are among the poorest groups in Ethiopia, and this specific activity will increase incomes and reduce poverty in this group.

Most importantly we aim to build capacity, among communities and individuals, to prevent the loss of cultural heritage assets with better protection and the identification of threats, through the development of better information about the extent and condition of these items.  Also, to coordinate institutional efforts for cultural heritage management within communities, between central, regional and zonal authorities, and with other institutions such as the Orthodox Church and appropriate heritage institutions in the UK.