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Series: Dr Pankhurst
The Tragic Fire at Dabra Damo Monastic Library
Dabra Damo monastery, which stands north of the road from Adwa to Adigrat, is one of Ethiopia’s most important historic sites. It was founded, according to tradition, at the beginning of the sixth century, by Abuna Za-Mika’el Aragawi, one of the famous Nine Saints. This early dating is confirmed by the building’s architecture, which is distinctly Aksumite.
The monastery had a library, thought to have been of considerable importance. It consisted in 1965, according to Dr. Otto Jaeger, of “about 50 manuscripts”, though the monks claimed that it “once contained about 1,000 volumes”. Housed in a traditional-type thatched building, this library has, as far as we know, never been properly studied, catalogued, or microfilmed.
This is now no longer possible, because the building was burnt down on 19 August of this year, when all the manuscripts, we are informed, were destroyed. The Church publication Sema’a Ledet for the Ethiopian month of Hedar, i.e. November – December, states the matter is under police investigation. People are asking, if it was a case of arson, how could strangers have reached the monastery, which can only be approached only by means of a rope ruled by the monks at the summit.
The loss of an historic library, which has survived the centuries up to our present age of science and technology, is a cause of intense regret. The fire, and the destruction of doubtless valuable manuscripts, called for serious inquiry, as to what the country’s unique cultural heritage.
The fire raises three important issues.
Firstly, the need to establish clear, and unambiguous, responsibility for historic sites, be it by the Church, the Federal or Regional Government.
Secondly, the need to take fire hazard seriously. Are sites on exposed mountains sufficiently protected against lightning by the nearby tall trees, or should they be fitted with lightning conductors? Can historic buildings be supplied with sand, earth, or water to extinguish fire, or ideally, modern-type fire-extinguishers? The latter are admittedly expensive, but far less valuable than the antiquities under threat. Should thatched roofs be replaced by corrugated iron? Should priceless manuscripts be placed in fire-proof containers? Can caretakers be given instruction in fire prevention and extinction?
Thirdly, what has happened to the Ethiopian manuscript Microfilm Library, the once much-vaunted E.M.M.L. project, launched by Abuna Theophilos in April 1971? Why, a quarter of a century later, is it not actively at work? If the Dabra Damo library had been microfilmed, as it should have been many years ago, we would at least now have had photographic record of the books whose loss we mourn. Are lists of the contents of church and monastic libraries being properly made, as urged by Ato Abebe Retta four decades ago? If not, why not? If yes, can the authorities now please supply us with a list of the titles and ages of manuscripts recently destroyed at Dabra Damo?