Ethiopian artefacts on eBay spark fears of looting from war-torn Tigray

Ancient relics including manuscripts and bibles are being sold online for as little as a few hundred pounds

Holly Bancroft
Wednesday 09 February 2022 13:41
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<p>An Ethiopian Muslim stands inside a damaged mausoleum at the al-Nejashi Mosque, one of the oldest in Africa and allegedly damaged by Eritrean forces shelling, in Negash, north of Wukro, 1 March 2021</p>

An Ethiopian Muslim stands inside a damaged mausoleum at the al-Nejashi Mosque, one of the oldest in Africa and allegedly damaged by Eritrean forces shelling, in Negash, north of Wukro, 1 March 2021

A flood of ancient Ethiopian artefacts have appeared for sale on websites including eBay, raising suspicions that they could have been plundered from churches during the conflict in Tigray, according to reports.

Centuries-old relics – including scrolls, manuscripts and bibles – are being sold on online marketplaces for only a few hundred pounds, The Times reported.

The 14-month Tigray conflict in Ethiopia has left thousands dead, forced more than 2 million people from their homes, and pushed large swathes of the country into famine.

There have been reports of Christian manuscripts being stolen from churches and monasteries – some pieces dating from the 13th century – while historic Muslim sites have also been looted.

Michael Gervers, a professor of history at the University of Toronto, told the Telegraph that an ancient Muslim tomb at Negash, a village in the Tigray region, had been badly damaged.

The Amanuel church, situated on the top of a hill for centuries, has also been damaged, and around ancient 800 Ge’ez manuscripts have been looted from the Shire region of Tigray, he said.

“The list goes on,” he added. “A Belgian team ... managed to reach the town of Shire, where they videotaped a tank covered with looted goods.”

Hagos Abrha Abay, a philologist, was in Tigray at the outbreak of the conflict, and has recorded damage to many ancient sites.

Referring to the increase in Ethiopian relics for sale online, he told The Times: “It is hard to know if the Ethiopian artefacts we are seeing have been taken from Tigray without looking at them, but there have been more popping up almost every day over the last six months.”

After being contacted by the newspaper, eBay removed from its site a number of unique Ethiopian artefacts with no evidence of provenance. The ecommerce giant said: “The sale of illicit antiques is prohibited on eBay, in line with UK and international laws.”

Activists in the Ethiopian diaspora are reportedly compiling a spreadsheet of the growing list of suspect items on eBay, as well as on Etsy, an online marketplace based in the United States.

International experts raised the alarm last year over the security of religious and cultural artefacts in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, a chapel in northern Ethiopia.

Many believe that the church holds the Ark of the Covenant – the biblical casket containing the Ten Commandments.

The war in Ethiopia broke out in November 2020, between the government and its allies and forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the political party that controls Tigray. Millions of people there urgently need food, according to the UN, but aid groups are struggling to deliver assistance.

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