Ethiopians Ponder Disrupting Their Present to Reclaim Past

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While investigating a proposed site to erect the 1,700 year old obelisk returned recently by Italy, archaeologists using high-tech imaging equipment discovered a major network of underground royal tombs. The discovery of more ancient artifacts has launched renewed interest in Aksum, a powerful kingdom that ruled the Horn of Africa from the 1st to the 6th century A.D. and was one of the four great civilizations at that time, alongside Rome, China and Persia.

But the historical finds have led to a confrontation with modern community concerns. In recent weeks, community meetings have been held in which residents were asked whether they would agree to vacate their property so historians could dig under their huts and through their farms.

Ethiopia, one of the world's poorest and least developed nations, is believed to contain some of civilization's oldest archaeological troves under its rocky soil. Experts estimate that less than 7 percent of these artifacts have been found, meaning that Ethiopia could be on the brink of the same kind of major archaeological discoveries that began in late 19th-century Greece or 1920s Egypt.

"Aksum is one of the least known civilizations in the world," said Fasil Giorghis, an Ethiopian architect and leader of a team of archaeologists and historians who are working in Aksum, as he hunched over reams of drawings in his office. "There are layers and layers of buildings and history here. There is major work to be done here. It's an exciting thing for our country."

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