Acknowledgment: Mesfin Tadesse is the main author of this post.
Cultural Heritage Theft
The photos below show details of 2 types of Orthodox crosses or meskel. They are Orthodox ceremonial crosses that I believe to be stolen. I came across them in a retail shop in Perth, Western Australia. What were they doing Down Under – more than 10,000 kilometres from Ethiopia? Questionable provenance of antique Orthodox crosses! Were they plunder, stolen from Lalibela rock-hewn monasteries by rebels in 2021? Cultural heritage theft needs to stop.
The provenance of the 2 crosses was highly suspect. Part of a label is shown below. It lacked manufacture details.
Held only by virgin deacons, these types of ceremonial crosses have been used since time immemorial in midnight prayer services or mahilet – strictly inside and around Orthodox monasteries and churches and Christian Orthodox churches in Ethiopia. Coptic and Roman Catholic churches do not use such styles of crosses. No way would ceremonial crosses be sold or used by ordinary people. I believe that the 2 that I saw were pillaged from Orthodox institutions by traitors, rebels and profiteers of the November War in Ethiopia.
Material Used in Orthodox Crosses
Ethiopian sterling silver and nickel alloy with less than 10% of stainless steel for strength
Worth of Antique Orthodox Crosses
Priceless to Orthodox and not for sale! In the Perth shop, 1 price tag was AUD 875 and the other AUD 950. This is more than the basic wage. These crosses would have taken a year to create. Their designs pre-date Christianity by thousands of years. I could not tell the age of these 2 photographed crosses. In Ethiopia’s monastery museums—2016, 2017, 2022 and 2021—there were many like them. I believe the Perth crosses to be genuine.
Orthodox Cross Styles
In the above photos, the crosses are not shown in their entirety. I cropped the images to protect the identity of the shop. There are 4 styles of Orthodox cross: Gondarri, Gojjami, Aksumite and Lalibela. The 2 that I found were Aksumite and Lalibela.
Aksum is in present-day Tigray in Ethiopia’s north-east. You can see the ancient Aksum-stele design in the cross. Aksum was the border-city workshop of Orthodox craftspeople. They were the miners and explorers of the Sabaean civilisation that once spread from Ethiopia to Arabia. The featured image for The November War in Ethiopia is of the ancient stele or obelisks.
This is from Lalibela in Wello, in the north. Ge’ez- and Sabaean-language inscriptions are in the cross’s centre; they are also visible in the Aksumite cross. The motif called minga is incorporated in both designs. The Nazis appropriated it as their swastika. Minga is an ancient Orthodox symbol. It provides stamina for long fasts and nocturnal and astronomical observations—literally ‘star counting’—and energy for spiritual development.
Orthodox Cross Designs
This page features Mesfin’s photo of 1 of Lalibela’s rock-hewn monasteries, Giyorgis. The entire building is in the shape of a cross. Ethiopia’s priest-king Lalibela built the monastery complex in the 13th century. However, the building design, its water technology and Orthodox symbolic décor all date from prior to 1,000 BCE.
Builders of the UNESCO-listed Lalibela monasteries were Orthodox. Their descendants have tattoos on their faces, seen in this program. The presenter says the churches were carved by Christians. Foreigners frequently make such mistakes. Perhaps the crosses confuse visitors.
Stolen Cultural Heritage: So What?
The 2 photographed crosses have now vanished from the shop in which I noticed them. Please boycott sacred artefacts sold commercially. Do buy items that would be sold in Ethiopia, but question the provenance of antiques.
Simply Be Aware
Share your awareness of what’s going on. Discourage rich white folks from naively handing over a lot of cash for exotic wares with questionable provenance. From the 1990s, for more than 20 years, Australia’s Ethiopian embassy was staffed by an Aussie couple. They had collaborated with rebels in Eritrea. Now in government, they rewarded the pair. They set up a shop—inside the embassy—that I visited. It sold Ethiopian gold, coffee and traditional clothing. This included a silk-velvet embroidered cape. The style is only worn for certain Orthodox ceremonies. Ethiopian and Eritrean diaspora in Melbourne noticed it worn by a wealthy Australian dancing in a nightclub. They explained the cape’s purpose; she listened and was horrified.
Speak Up About Cultural Heritage Theft
Taking No Prisoners
In the 19th century, Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia killed 450 Christian Orthodox priests who sold out her cultural heritage or betrayed Ethiopians to Germany and Britain. Today, similar traitors are around the world. Profiteers of wars fomented in poor, yet culturally rich, nations are harboured abroad. Their host nations feign ignorance; perhaps they sympathise with superpowers hell-bent on taking over Africa. Fortunately for such 2-legged hyenas, times have changed: they still have their [not very clever] heads attached to their bodies.
November War Theft
Lalibela Rock-Hewn Monasteries
What the Rebels Stole
- parchment designs for the Lalibela-monastery complex
- 3 metre x 1.5 metre birana or goatskin books. This included Audenegiste or Key of Knowledge. TPLF carted them away using heavy-duty cables.
- Orthodox crosses
- 27 emperors’ crowns, including that of Emperor Tewodros II (Amharic news report)
- a 12-metre scroll, each roll dedicated to 1 science
The Scroll’s Contents
The 12-metre scroll covered astronomy, medicine, plant and animal genetics for breeding and water-development engineering. The 21st-century challenge is drinking-water supply says Mesfin, who is a water-development civil and construction engineer. King Lalibela’s 13th century water development at the complex was unique. The French tried unsuccessfully to replicate it. Some would welcome Ge’ez texts documenting ancient Abyssinia’s engineering innovations. Is this why UNESCO’s condemnation of looting and vandalism at Lalibela was so lame?
North of Lalibela at Waldeba Monastery, the abun (abbott) says that the junta stole 52 birana (Orthodox goatskin books) and tabo (Ark of the Covenant replicas).
Return Cultural Heritage
Ethiopian Museums are Well Curated
Ethiopia’s monastery museums are tiny, yet well-curated. Le Louvre Museum in Paris is vast, yet boring compared to Ethiopian museums. No wonder foreigners pay for the spoils of the November War in Ethiopia.
Ethiopian Museum Exhibits are Well Conserved
Caucasians argue that they care for stolen artefacts better than the owners. This is false; Ethiopians conserve their exhibits. Cultural heritage means everything to them. At Lalibela, a news reporter’s camera man killed himself in distress. Inside the monasteries, a monk stabbed a Sudanese mercenary as he smashed an Orthodox cross. Return stolen cultural heritage to Africa.
- 60 Minutes. “Inside Lalibela, the Mysterious Holy Site Visited by 200,000 Ethiopian Christians on Their Annual…”. December 25, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=excYNB26fhs
- Steffes-Halmer, Annabelle. “Africa’s Lost Heritage and Europe’s Restitution”. In Culture. November 09, 2021. https://www.dw.com/en/africas-lost-heritage-and-europes-restitution-policies/a-59763966
- Habesha Unity. [Amharic news report]. Aug 07, 2021. https://youtu.be/zSUH5SV8k1k
- Featured image: Giyorgis Monastery at Lalibela Ground-Level View of Roof © Mesfin Tadesse 2017
- Photos: Antique Ethiopian Orthodox Cross from Aksum – Detail, Antique Ethiopian Orthodox Cross from Lalibela – Detail & Retail Label © Ianet Bastyan 2022; Orthodox Minga and Crosses in Lalibela Monastery Windows © Mesfin Tadesse 2017