MENEGASHA, Ethiopia – On a wooded hill near the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa are fragments of red clay next to sparkling obsidian flakes. Nearby are semi-buried stones arranged in a row. On the other side of the hill, a rectangular stone slab seems to have been broken in half.
For archaeologists like Samuel Walker and his colleague Ayele Tarekegn this proves that this was once a medieval city. The clay pieces are potsherds, the obsidian flakes were tools used by artisans to work leather, and the stones were probably once the walls of churches and palaces.
"It's unbelievable that it's here," Walker said. "When I saw that, I thought, that's just the tip of the iceberg – wherever we dig, we find stuff."
Archaeological excavations are rare in Ethiopia, despite their wealth of potential sites. "It's a poor country, and archeology is a very expensive topic," said Ayele, who is trying to develop the field in the country. "It's all about money and the development of expertise, staff and labor."
It is planned to hold a donor conference in January to develop Ethiopian archeology, preserve existing sites and possibly explore new ones. Further investment in this area could illuminate little-known parts of the country's history. Perhaps more importantly, it can clarify some of the modern debates that are driving Ethiopia uproar as it moves from oppressive authoritarianism to a freer society in which its many ethnic groups can make their voices heard.
When reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in April, he tried to open the country by inviting returned rebels, dismissing political prisoners and ending many years of government repression.
His changes were hugely popular, but they were also accompanied by riots. With more than 80 ethnic groups fighting for land and influence, the hostilities suppressed by the old government have risen to the surface, especially between the two main groups: the Oromo – the largest in the country, which has long been marginalized – and the Amhara, the historical ruler of many Ethiopia.
Both groups are arguing over what the capital Addis Ababa can claim. The Oromo say it was their land before Emperor Menelik II, ruler of the Abyssinian Empire, founded the city in 1887 to found the city.
The remains of the cities Walker found might help answer those questions. Suddenly, history and archeology have become political.
While there are medieval ruins in Ethiopia, not much is known about this time. A map of the region, drawn in 1450 by a Venetian monk, showed that Ethiopia was found in cities like Walker's. "The material culture that we have survived from that time shows a significant direct import of religious and cultural material as far as France and Flanders. It is incredibly rich and artistically articulated, "said Verena Krebs, expert on medieval Ethiopia at the Ruhr University Bochum.
When the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century, they found a place with few permanent settlements. So what happened in the following years? War. To be precise, religious wars.
In the 1520s, the Muslim vassal states of Ethiopia rebelled against Christian hegemony. Their forces entered the then Abyssinian empire and tried to destroy it by burning palaces, monasteries and trading posts and bringing untold wealth in gold and silver.
With Portuguese help, the Ethiopians defeated the Muslims, but the two opponents remained exhausted. The Ethiopian forces withdrew from the area around today's Addis Ababa. Into the vacuum came the Oromo people from the south. They populated the area and worked the land as peasants and shepherds until most of the ruined cities had disappeared.
Walker searches for these lost cities with a combination of old maps, Google Earth, and trade routes.
Such discoveries could remind modern Ethiopians of their country's past as a rich, cosmopolitan trading empire with contacts around the world. The new Prime Minister Abiy wants to restore the country's connections to the outside world, especially international trade.
When the anger between the many peoples of Ethiopia has reached a fever – around 1.4 million people were displaced by violence across the country this year – archeology could warn in time how war, fanaticism and ethnic rivalry have destroyed Ethiopia in the past ,
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