Many Ethiopians were shocked by the news that spread like wildfire: Ethiopian antiques could be bought on the online marketplace eBay and similar trading platforms. Items for sale there reportedly included centuries-old scrolls and Christian Orthodox Bibles, often sold at below-market prices. An antique manuscript, for example, only cost €688. However, there is no proof of authenticity.
The manuscript expert Hagos Abrha Abay, an Ethiopian academic living in Germany, was one of the first to draw attention to the eBay listings: in February he tweeted photos of the art objects listed there, showing the range of antiques on offer. Meanwhile, eBay has removed a number of Ethiopian artefacts without proof of provenance from its listings.
Real or fake
It is not possible to tell from the photos in online offers whether the items are real or counterfeit. For years, experts have been warning of a spate of fake antiques being offered on eBay and other online sites.
However, the Ethiopian government believes that the objects are probably genuine – and asked for help to get them back: “The artifacts are undoubtedly Ethiopian cultural assets,” said Minister of State for Tourism Sileshi Girma in a DW interview.
Many of the items appear to come from areas designated as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. According to Girma, Ethiopian officials are therefore in contact with UNESCO: “We will continue to work on bringing our heritage back to Ethiopia. UNESCO will also retrieve the objects from the eBay marketplace,” says the minister.
Experts suspect that many Ethiopian antiques that appear in the online shops were looted during the civil war between government forces and militants from Tigray. The war has already lasted 15 months. For almost as long, experts have warned of the danger that churches, monasteries, mosques and museums in Tigray and neighboring regions in northern Ethiopia could be looted.
The Al-Nejashi Mosque dates back to the 7th century. It was damaged during the war and, according to eyewitnesses, also looted.
While the international airport in the capital, Addis Ababa, is tightly controlled, many of Ethiopia’s border crossings are different, and “people could get away with different things,” government official Sileshi acknowledged. The conflict also makes it difficult to keep track of religious and cultural artifacts.
Damage and casualties unknown
“There was a lot of destruction and looting in this war,” says the prominent Ethiopian cultural heritage expert Henok Seyoum. He has seen damaged cultural sites with his own eyes – despite the war: “It’s still raging in the north, and that’s why it’s impossible to visit cultural sites even in Tigray.”
Alebachew Desalegn, a London-based private collector of Ethiopian artifacts, believes it is plausible that the artifacts were looted. “The heritage shows your roots. The heritage shows the history of the country. A campaign against cultural heritage in Ethiopia is itself part of the war,” Desalegn said. “This is unacceptable.”
Collector Desalegn accused Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government of turning a blind eye to the destruction and theft of the country’s priceless heritage in this political conflict. “The [Tourismus-]Ministry must investigate all looted cultural sites and report to the Ethiopian people,” he demands. The government must also ensure the return of relics that have been looted and taken abroad. Tourism Minister Girma announced that his office will assess the extent of the destruction and looting research and will publish its results soon.
Ethiopia’s Countless Artifacts
The sheer volume of historical objects in Ethiopia makes finding such objects difficult. It is estimated that there are around 200,000 ancient manuscripts in the libraries and archives of Ethiopian monasteries. In addition, Ethiopia’s artifacts have been bought and sold for a long time and are therefore widely spread across the globe.
This ancient Bible was stolen by British soldiers in 1868. In 2021, the Ethiopians received the cultural treasure back.
Yohannes Zeleke deals with the whereabouts of Ethiopian artefacts – he is a member of the International Committee for the Return of Ethiopian Cultural Heritage. “Ethiopia is a very old state. It was the first country with a port on the Red Sea, had a fleet and controlled the port from Sudan to the Indian Ocean. Ethiopia traded with Egypt, Persia, India and the Greco-Roman Empire,” he told DW.
For Zeleke, having Ethiopian heritage in museums around the world is one thing. The dubious sale of the country’s antiquities to private individuals, however, is another matter.
“It is worrying that Ethiopia’s heritage is in the hands of private individuals,” he said. The most important thing now is to find out whether the artifacts offered on eBay are genuine pieces or duplicates, said Zeleke, adding: “As long as this is not known, we should not panic.”
Collaboration: Solomon Muchie Abebe in Addis Ababa.
Adapted from the English by Martina Schwikowski.