|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.