It was twenty-one years ago, in 1991, while conducting the socieconomic and cultural heritage components of an Environmen Impact Assessment of a hydro-electric project proposed Northern Shewa, Ethiopia, that I first became interested in the monastery of Debre Libanos. Encouraged by Professor Richard Pankhurst and the late Degife Gabre Tsadik (then Chief Librarian of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa University), embarked upon a study of the history of the monastery, of which the present publication constitutes a part.
Founded around 1275, one of the most devastating eve in the monastery's tumultuous history was the attack by Ottorn backed forces during ajihad waged against the Christian highlan by the Muslim state of Adal under the command of Imam Ahmed ibn Ibrahim, now popularly known as Ahmed Gragn. The resultant slaughter of some 450 clergy and the destruction and pillage of the monastery in July, 1531, was documented in considerable detail a chronicler who accompanied the expeditionary force.3
In contrast with this 16th -century onslaught, in which one the Imam's military commanders went to some trouble to attempt negotiated settlement with the clergy, the more recent massacre and pillage of Debre Libanos by the forces of Fascist Italy in 1937 was more cold-blooded in its execution, and more devastating in terms of the extent of the slaughter. Yet the outrage is little known, and when Degife and I attempted to find out exactly what had happened, we discovered that none of the written sources - neither Ethiopian nor foreign - provided any details .. Most writers had the relied on a bald two-line reference in telegrammes dispatched to Rome by Viceroy Rodolfo Graziani. Thus it became clear that the facts had never been published - let alone .anyone ever being held to account.
Degife and I thus decided to attempt our own investigation of the massacre. However, had we realised at the time what we were letting ourselves in for, we might well have never embarked on the project, for the investigations were to prove long and complex.
The project began with an initial phase of research spanning the period 1991-5, in which we identified the circumstances surrounding the massacre of Oebre Libanos, the precise location of the principal execution site, and the true extent of the slaughter there. These findings were published in Italian by Professor Angelo Del Boca in Studt Piacentini in 1997.4
Realising that many of the victims had been executed at a site near Oebre Birhan - a fact that had gone largely unnoticed - we managed in 1994 to trace one ofthe survivors who as a boy had been among the captives at Oebre Birhan, and who had been imprisoned in Danane, the notorious concentration camp in Italian Somaliland. It was during interviews of this informant that we discovered that. the executions at the second site pad been on a far larger scale than anyone had realised. This diseovery led to the second phase of research, which I conducted between 1996 and 1998. During this period I managed to lQC'ate the second site, and trace a number of eyewitnesses to the executions. As a result of' .....Continues