The Ethiopian National Museum, which I ducked into to during an intense rainstorm this morning, is full of reminders of this country’s remarkable history and prehistory. Ethiopia’s Afar Depression is where ‘Lucy’ (the earliest known relatively complete skeleton of an upright-walking hominid) was found in 1974. The skeleton is now on display here, along with other treasures from Ethiopia’s rich archaeological deposits. Ethiopians are very proud of the fact that their country seems to have been the cradle of our earliest ancestors, and the staggering human genetic diversity here (the highest in the world, an anthropologist friend once told me) is written on the faces of Addis Ababa’s people. Binyam, my guide around the museum, said he didn’t want to make this into a nationalist point – he felt ‘Lucy’ and other finds like her belonged to the whole world, and that perhaps this would make the world take more notice of Ethiopia. Binyam also cracked me up with his introduction to the museum’s palaeontology gallery: “There are two theories of the development of human beings: the creationist theory – do you know of this, Mr Ben? – and the correct, or Darwin theory”.
I can understand Binyam’s anxiety that people didn’t take enough notice of Ethiopia from the many I-never-knew-that moments that I’ve had while reading about its history before my arrival. What most people in the UK know about Ethiopia could probably be summed up in a few bullet points, with famine and poverty at the top. I could go on most of the day about things I never knew, but one in particular stands out – the existence of the Axumite Empire, which stood at a key point on trade routes between the Roman Empire and ancient India. I had never even heard of it before reading about it, but it was ranked by the Persian prophet Mani as one of the four great civilisations of its time, along with Rome, Persia, and China. The beauty and craftsmanship of the objects from this period in the museum was striking, and the number of decorative and luxury objects said a lot about Axum’s wealth. The South Arabian script they used to write their inscriptions (the precursor of the Ge’ez writing system now used for Amharic, Tigrinya, and other Ethiopian languages) reminded me very much of Viking runes, for some reason.
The final thing that I thought of when wandering around the museum was the tragedy of poor funding. Ethiopia clearly has some treasures to preserve, and hardy materials like stone and clay are in good condition. Other, more recent artefacts, like clothes and furniture belonging to emperors past, were tatty and falling to bits, and the displays and interpretive material, except in the palaeontology galleries, was minimal or non-existent. I am sure that museum budgets are not a massive priority in a country on whose limited resources many more urgent claims are made. Given the relative avalanche of money that is available to the British Museum and similar institutions, it seems a pity that rich nations don’t do more to help other countries preserve and display the world’s history in situ.