The Ethiopian Heritage Fund has expanded its profile significantly over the year.
We have been approached on a number of projects which involve not only conservation but the sharing of knowledge with university students, the church, tour operators and members of the Department of Tourism and Culture. We are optimistic that the management of cultural heritage sites, particularly in Tigray, is becoming more organized and effective benefitting the stakeholders: the church, the community and those involved in tourism.
We hope to be able to build on these initiatives in the year to come.
The Holy Trinity Church is at the heart of Cheleqot, 15 km south of Mekele, the provincial capital of Tigray. The Ethiopian Heritage Fund was approached by the village of Cheleqot for help in setting up a museum. The villagers have built a museum building in the church compound and now need help to create a space where they can securely display and store the church’s treasures. The Holy Trinity Church was commissioned by Ras Wolde Sellassie (1745-1816) a powerful regional ruler. He had close contact with Europeans and in 1792 he sent a letter to king George III asking for architects and builders to help build the church. In response, the king sent Henry Salt and Nathanael Pearce to Abyssinia. Both men wrote and published extensive diaries of their stay giving a unique insight into the way of life Cheleqot at the time.
The church’s foundations were laid in 1793. The walls of the church are covered in beautiful paintings in the 2nd Gondarine style undertaken by a famous painter called Aleqa Hailu. It took him 7 years to finish the work. In 1804/05, almost ten years after the completion of the building, Salt and Pearce arrived in Cheleqot bringing with them gifts from King George III. These gifts now form part of the the Royal Treasures of the church. The church’s collection represents a unique mixture of some of the finest Ethiopian work of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, early manuscripts and British pieces gifted by King George III. The collection also includes important pieces like crowns, chalices, crosses and sistrums which are used as part of the Ethiopian church service. A number of the crowns were made by an Egyptian craftsman, known locally as Abusteli, and are some of the most spectacular in Ethiopia. All these treasures are housed in the church where the clergy and village have managed to keep them together for more then 200 years.
Jacques Mercier accompanied by local adviser Kebede travelled to Cheleqot to meet with the local historian and the future curator Asfaw. They made a selection of 50 highlights from the church treasures to be displayed in the new museum. In November Blair Priday travelled to Cheleqot with Charles Marsden Smedley, a lighting and museum design specialist. Charles has subsequently designed a lay-out for the interior of the museum. Colin Bowles is helping us with mounting and display. EHF will be working closely with the local community and church to ensure that the museum benefits the community and conserves the church treasures. This project is now an important focus for the charity and we hope to raise sufficient funds to commence the project in 2017. To this aim we will be hosting fundraising events in the near future more information on this event will follow.
Tigray Conservation programme
In 2013 Lisa Shekede and Stephen Rickerby undertook a wide ranging technical and condition survey of the churches in the Tigray region to establish their conservation needs and constraints. Four of Tigray’s painted churches were selected for future work. The survey concentrated on establishing the types of damage and deterioration at these sites, though examination of the original structural materials and painting technology. A conservation program was started in 2014 and since then there have been three intensive field work campaigns. The most recent trip was undertaken in October/November 2016.
Abuna Daniel, Qorqor
Both the thin gypsum which carries the painting, and the sandstone rock on which the plaster is applied, were dangerously separating and large areas of painting had already collapsed and been lost. Following intensive preliminary investigations and diagnosis of the main deterioration issues, a major program of stabilization was carried out in 2016.
Injection-grouting is the preferred option in current conservation practice for treating problems of rock and plaster separation. It re-establishes adhesion between the separated layers of a wall painting by introducing an adhesive material with bulking properties. At Abuna Daniel, a gypsum-based grout was specifically developed, with properties compatible with the nature of the original plaster. A micro-grout was also developed for re-adhering very narrow, but still endangering, separation gaps between the plaster and the rock, and for strengthening exposed and vulnerable plaster edges. Reverence for paintings is often accompanied by a highly developed protective sense, and a reluctance to allow any form of physical interference. Even remedial efforts directed at essential stabilisation – such as new repairs – require careful consideration of their potential impact. At Abuna Daniel, great care is being taken to make new repairs as unobtrusive as possible. The conservation works were inspected and approved by members of the church committee.
Since 2014, considerable conservation treatment has been carried out at Bahra Maryam. including stabilisation, uncovering and cleaning of its important 14th/15th-century wall paintings. A rail supporting curtains in front of the sanctuary had been crudely embedded into fire-damaged and flaking painting, and was causing further paint damage and loss. In 2015, the rail was removed and safely repositioned, and the old curtains were replaced with new custom-made ones. In 2016, other curtains were similarly safely repositioned. These initiatives gain the trust and cooperation of local priests and villagers, as well as achieving important conservation aims.
The paintings at Bahra Maryam include a rare dedicatory inscription detailing the patronage of a local landowner, which has been uncovered and cleaned, revealing its full extent. This too was being damaged. A new wooden barrier has been made, which will not only protect the newly revealed inscription, but also provide a necessary alternative liturgical division of the church interior. Such measures rely on local agreement and inclusion.
Other long-neglected improvements were implemented including glazing windows and blocking openings, to reduce air-exchange with the exterior, which had been identified as a factor in paint deterioration. Work also continued on the conservation, cleaning and uncovering of the wall paintings and historic plasters at Bahra. Gradually, conservation work is helping to improve the context in which the paintings survive. We visited Bahra on our recent trip and were thrilled with the work done by Lisa and Stephen. It is a very special place. Considerable efforts are being made to promote Bahra. During our recent trip, we met with Mark Chapman of Tesfa tours to encourage him to include a visit in his walking tours of the area. Putting Maryam Bahra on the tourism circuit is important to its preservation as it is to it economic benefits.
Pétros Tefetsamé Semaet, Mellehayzengi
On their recent visit, Lisa and Stephen took building consultant David Michelmore to the painted church of Petros Mellehayzengi where there were concerns that the cracks appearing in the plasterwork showed structural issues. David believes that the movement of the building is limited to a one area and can be contained and in time, work could be carried out on the paintings. We will be drawing up plans for this future project.
In Tigray, Lisa and Stephen were assisted by Mekonen Hagos Desta a conservation officer from the Bureau for Culture and Tourism in Tigray. He has been working with the project since 2013 and has been an invaluable member of the team.
We will be returning to Yemrehana Kristos later this year to continue investigations and restoration works on this ancient and magnificent 11th century church.
Lisa Shekede, acting on behalf of the Ethiopian Heritage Fund, has been selected to be part of Pro-He-Dev (Promoting Heritage for Ethiopia's Development) a wide ranging project funded by the EU to improve heritage and tourism in Ethiopia. For this project Lisa will be collaborating with CREST (Center for Responsible Travel).