Ethiopian Herald By Tsegay Hagos
Ethiopia, the first country which adopted Christianity and Islamic religions in Africa has fascinating churches, monasteries and mosques. St. Marry Zion of Aksum, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, Wukro, Abreha We Atsbeha, St. Marry of Gunda Gundo, Al Nejashi mosque and others are among the oldest religious spots in Ethiopia. These churches and mosques house ancient and historic heritages. However, most of them are at the brink of collapse down due to the wear and tear of time. The monastery of Gunda Gundo is one of such spots facing a tragedy of collapse.
The monastery of Gunda Gundo is found in the eastern zone of Tigray. Everyone could access the monastery via the town of Edagahamus, 100 km from Tigray’s capital Mekelle. From Edagahamus, 24 km travel on rough roads by car leads to Geblen, a village situated on the top of the cliff. From Geblen, tourists and local the Orthodox faithful could access it on foot since it is found between upright side cliffs. When one descends down the cliff, one can find a river. In addition to this, there are beautiful mountains, canyons and abundant fruits produced by monks. The people of Irob, who live there, are friendly and welcoming people. They know no reserve in giving everything they have to their guests. Gunda Gundo is known for its prolific scriptorium, as well as its library of Ge’ez manuscripts. This collection of over 220 volumes, all but one dating from before the 16th century, is one of the largest collections of its kind in Ethiopia.
According to the magazine published by Tigray Culture and Tourism Bureau, the monastery bears its name Mariam Gunda Gundo by way of adoration of St. Marry. The church is a combination of two old mud houses that are constructed with four cruciform pillars and twelve arches. The aging church is well noted for its time honored parchments, crosses and crowns. It was constructed in the 14th century during Emperor Zerayakob. It was built by Abune Ezra also known by his nickname as ‘Ezra the wise’. The church has a rectangular shape. About 150 monks were believed to be the first dwellers of the monastery. Their leader was Aba Estifanos. The monks in general are known as Deqiqe Estifanos, meaning ‘followers of Estifanos’. Deqiqe Estifanos had faced barbaric persecution because of their theological teaching. As to historical manuscripts, Deqiqe Estifanos had a very progressive idea that could transform or upturn attitude of medieval period Ethiopian society.
When irreplaceable heritages had been ransacked and gutted down by fires invaders and intruders across Ethiopia set on, the artifacts which being kept in Gunda Gundo were spared such tragedy. Its geographical location has contributed a lot in this regard. As a result, it was named Gunda Gundo to show its preserving capability and religious significance. Before it was named Gunda Gundo, it was known as Debre Gerizen. Gunda Gundo is the oldest and famous monastery next to Debre Damo. Nevertheless, it is yet to be visited by more visitors due to the difficult geographic position.
Gunda Gundo has kept plenty of relic books, crosses, thrones and other heritages. Nevertheless, the heritages have been vulnerable to looting and damage for hundreds of years. Not only the heritages, the church
Just as its remoteness had discouraged Imam Ahmad from visiting, so the Derg likewise failed to impose their authority on this distant corner of Ethiopia — although the Tigray People’s Liberation Front reportedly held a field conference at Gunda Gunde in the late 1980s.
The buildings of Gunda Gunde include a numerous buildings intended to house the establishment’s monks, built “of flat stones without mortar with roofs held up by huge logs darkened by the smoke and wear of centuries”. In the middle stands a large, rectangular church which Henze speculated dated to the foundation of the monastery. Mordini measured the walls of the church, and reported its facade was 13.48 meters wide, the length of its left and right outer walls as 18.7 and 17.65 meters respectively, and rear wall as 14.9 meters wide. Henze describes its outer walls as consisting “of neatly laid flat tannish stone which has a bit of clay as mortar. They do not give the impression of ever having been rigidly regular. At several places there has been a moderate degree of subsidence which has caused cracks, never very wide, and there is occasional evidence of repairs. Between the outer and inner walls there is a passage about 1-1/2 m. wide.” He was unable to determine whether this passage extends completely around the inner square structure of the church.
Following Ruth Playne’s visit, a church dedicated to Saint Tekle Haymanot was erected outside the monastery for the convenience of women who had come to the monastery to observe religious holidays. Henze was told it had been endowed by Emperor Haile Selassie.
Another important monastic building is the eqabet or treasury, which Henze describes as a small, rectangular building built in the 20th century with mortared walls and a tin roof. This building contains the monastic library.
When de Jacobis was shown the monastic library at Gunda Gunde, he was told it held “the largest known collection of Abyssinian works.” Although the collection of the monastic library remains an important collection, larger ones have been created since then. Those in Ethiopia include the manuscript collection of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies with as many as 2,000 volumes, and the National Archives and Library of Ethiopia with 880 volumes. Large collections of Ge’ez manuscripts exist in the British Library (more than 598 manuscripts), the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris (688 manuscripts), and at Princeton University (325 manuscripts).
Gunda Gundo has been facing a risk of collapse. Having understood this problem, Mekelle University in collaboration with Tigray Culture and Tourism Bureau has undertaken renovation works recently. The renovation was performed without damaging its historic architecture.
Ethiopia is blessed with immense cultural and historical heritages. These invaluable heritages have not yet been preserved and promoted properly. Hence, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Culture and Tourism Bureaus, Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage and other stakeholders should work together in conserving and promoting heritages like Gunda Gundo.