Inter-Faith Co-Existence, Social Heritage, and Community Archives: Building trust in Ethiopia

Archaeology and community archives can help foster communities' sense of social heritage and address the difficult tasks in taking care of cultural heritage.

I had the pleasure of participating in a recent cultural heritage event called “Beyond Destruction: Archaeology & Cultural Heritage in the Middle East and North Africa” organized by the UC Berkeley CMES. The goal of the symposium was to promote a global discussion of cultural heritage protection in the Middle East and North Africa and to engage academic and governmental institutions with deeper responses beyond reactions to looting and destruction. The program also included initiatives that emphasize a well‐rounded approach to cultural heritage to engage both with archaeological remains and the living communities in which research is conducted.

Discussions in the morning and afternoon panels ranged from the emergency to protect cultural heritage in areas of civil unrest, the exploration of culture’s potential role in promoting peace and a more effective self-governance, to how (and if) digital technologies can contribute to this discourse. I sat on the afternoon panel as a discussant and overcoming the shock of seeing images of heavy looting and intentional destruction of cultural heritage in many conflicts sites in the Middle East and Egypt, I tried my best to bring a word of hope. I brought my testimony of the SRSAH experience in Ethiopia, at the site of Beita Semati. Within the Southern Red Sea Archaeological Histories project (SRSAH), directed by Dr. Michael Harrower from Johns Hopkins University and me as co-director, archaeological research is being combined with local cultural development and effective community engagement.

The community archive being launched parallel to this project will be available to local schools to create curricula about local history and archaeology, and will foster other local heritage efforts for the museum, local archaeological training, and sustainable outreach and fundraising.

The archaeological site of Beita Semati is located in the small village of Idaga Ruba, in the remote region of Yeha, in Northern Ethiopia. The archaeological history of this place goes back to the first millennium BC and seems to have left a large footprint on the communities living here today. This is a place where Muslims and Christians build together, and do not destroy. Muslims work the fields side by side with Christians of the village. Christians celebrate Muslim festivals and vice-versa. On social occasions, men and women take their places side by side, locking hands and standing shoulder-to-shoulder in traditional dances.

Social elements attached to ancient traditions, some of which linked to the cycle of nature, the harvest for instance and the preparation and cooking of crops that immediately follow, seem to have a predominant impact on diversity of belief. Why is inter-faith co-existence working so well in this community? The archaeological history of this region seems to hold key aspects to understand its modern social life.

In the short space of about 100 years starting in the early 7th century, the advent of Islam profoundly transformed the character and culture of many regions of the old world, from northern India to Spain, by challenging the widespread Christian faith with a new intellectual position. Ethiopia, as one of the regions geographically impacted by the Muslim wave, makes a very special case in this story. Northern Ethiopia was never conquered by Islam, its kings and population firmly kept their ancient Christian faith while establishing amicable relations with the Muslims. Well more than amicable, as from different historical sources we know that the kings of Ethiopia in 615 AD granted refuge to early Muslims escaping the Qureish persecution, including on of the Prophet Mohammed’s daughters. These amicable relationships never changed to these very days, as demonstrated by the communities living in Idaga Ruba.

My take is that maybe cultural heritage holds a key to peaceful cohabitation more than religious beliefs or political convictions do. or it might if we all did our part.

Communities that have preserved a harmonious inter-faith co-existence they inherited from the past naturally share a strong sense of “social heritage”, a blend of history, cultural identities, monuments, oral traditions, folklore, celebrations, that all become part of the very existence of a society. It is madness, as modern archaeologists, to think that OUR archaeology can be alienated from local social heritage. The uninterrupted flow of events from ancient to modern times that as archaeologists we have the privilege to study, carries this responsibility for us.

At CoDA and within the SRSAH project, responsible for the excavations at Beita Semati, we have come to enjoy the idea that we do not have to figure it all out ourselves. Working at a unique conjunction between anthropology, archaeology, and digital technology we can help foster communities’ sense of social heritage and more effectively address the difficult tasks in taking care of cultural heritage.

By establishing a collaborative environment and by creating long-lasting trust and learning experiences, our projects can in fact make a difference. Our scientific results can and must feed back into communities’ social heritage. Imagine how much our (boring) archaeological interpretations based on “data” can become dramatically more engaging and relevant to all the communities we seek to serve if communities had a voice in them. Fortunately, we are more and more persuaded, at least some of us are, that our highly specialized results are enriched, rather than diminished by popular narratives that reflect community feedback.

At CoDA particularly, our efforts of the last years have been concentrated into building digital tools that are not based on the existence of one official narrative (the project’s, the mainstream historical account, the institution’s or government’s directives). Rather, we have specialized in building community-owned archives that are either based on practiced cultural protocols, or that can accommodate a number of different views through differential access. Either way once created, these archives are managed by the communities they serve. This “policy” has been adopted by the SRSAH project. The SRSAH website, which is still work in progress, is in fact built on our platform and will feature:

  • A private archival repository of raw research data maintained by the project
  • Public content in English maintained by the project in collaboration with local authorities
  • A Traditional Knowledge repository in local languages (Amharic and Tigrigna), editable by Ethiopian researchers, students, and local historians for continued access and contributions.

All the content available on the website and especially the Traditional Knowledge repository is available to local schools to create curricula about local history and archaeology. In addition to our multilingual website, there are some practical steps we are taking to foster local social heritage and have our project being part of it:

  • help the local museum, with collaboration of local students, to manage and preserve cultural artifact collections;
  • train local students in archaeology and digital archaeology both in the field and through PhD programs abroad;
  • create a sustainable combined fundraising strategy not only aimed at archaeological research but at tourism development and digital trainings.

Stay tuned for the launch of the SRSAH website and send us a message to add your experience to this testimony.

I shot this short video during my last season at Beita Semati in June 2015. Our local collaborators agreed to work half day during a holiday and we ended the day with a fun coffee ceremony under a slow, sweet, rainy sky…

“My name is Makonnen Gebre Meskal one of the members of this archaeological project and this is the day of May 28th celebration.* Muslims and Christians, we celebrate together. The Muslims help the Christians when they build a church and (the Christians helps the Muslims when they build a mosque). So both hand in hand, (we) have lived for many years, from the ancient times to today. As you see here also, this is a good celebration and a good festivity of May 28th and we are happy all together. (Greeting in Tigrigna).”

*May 28th is a National festivity in Ethiopia, as it commemorates the end of the terrorist Derg regime in 1991. Although this day is Ethiopia’s National Day, its official name is Derg Downfall Day.

Makonnen Gebre Meskal

archaeological project member