In 2019, the EthiopianHeritage Fund was delighted to receive 2 year funding from the Gerda Henkel Stiftung (GHS) to undertake a survey of the wall paintings in the churches of Tigray.
These churches have long been a hidden wonder of Ethiopia, many of which are carved into dramatic sandstone massifs high above the plains and valleys. In 2013 EHF embarked on a preliminary survey, to assess the condition and original technology of their paintings. We became aware that wall paintings in remote locations are being lost at an alarming rate. Natural deterioration is one reason for this. But there are other causes, too. With growing populations, local communities may build a new larger church closer to their village, abandoning ancient painted churches to the elements. There are also recent examples of paintings being obliterated by whitewashing and cement plastering.
The need for a comprehensive survey of Tigray's wall paintings is therefore urgent. In October, wall-painting experts Lisa Shekede and Stephen Ricker by returned to Tigray to begin this important work. The team under took survey work to clusters of churches around Gheralta, Atsbi, Adigrat, and Mekelle, aided by Ashenafi Hagos from the Tigray Culture and TourismBureau (TCTB) and Abel Assefa from the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritages (ARCCH). A list of churches to visit had been drawn up based on documentation from previous travellers and researchers, and from word-of-mouth sources. The survey took in 16 churches in the region. Although some of these are well-known, there has been little specialist research and recording of their wall-paintings. Other selected churches are more remote and seldom visited. Here the picture is very worrying, with cases of wall paintings being destroyed or irretrievably covered over in recent years. We estimate that 19% of Tigray's known wall paintings have disappeared in the last 50 years, half of those in the last 5 years. At each site, therefore, comprehensive recording was carried out, including microscopic and ultra violet imaging. In some cases, small paint samples were taken for scientific analysis, too. More churches will be visited in 2020 after which an extensive report will be drawn up providing an important resource for cultural bodies and scholars.