Tigrayan Martyrs Monument & Museum
A large memorial complex and museum in the city of Mekele in Ethiopia
's northern Tigray region. Well worth the trip to Mekele in its own right, but a must-see add-on when passing through en route to the northern Tigray or the Danakil Depression
More background info:
The Tigray region in northern Ethiopia
on the border with Eritrea had long been a part of the country rather neglected by the central government in Addis Ababa. As decolonization and struggles for independence swept all over Africa from the 1960s onwards, left-wing revolutionary ideas also reached Ethiopia, a country never having been a proper colony but still stuck in an old feudal system with an ageing emperor who was getting increasingly fragile at the helm. In the late 1960s and early 70s various factions of more or less communist-leaning organizations formed in Ethiopia and also in the Tigray region. In fact the names of the various groups were in hindsight almost comically reminiscent of the old Monty Python satire in “The Life of Brian” about the Middle East with the fiercely opposed “Judean People’s Front” vs the “People’s Front of Judea”.
When the Derg (see under Red Terror Museum
) eventually managed to topple the emperor and install a transitional military government in 1974/75, the Tigray organization TPLF
(Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front
), a small Marxist-Leninist revolutionary splinter group opposed the coup, assuming that it would not lead to real socialism and a free Ethiopian nation. (And indeed it turned out they were right in that prediction, even though the Derg did eventually establish a People’s Republic of Ethiopia, it was all rather a masquerade for a full-on military dictatorship very far removed from any lofty socialist ideas it may once have harboured.)
From just a small handful of rebels, the TPLF grew and intensified their resistance fight against the regime, also enjoying the support of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). With joint forces they were able to be an increasing pain in the side of the Derg, who at times retaliated with utmost brutality – especially in the bombing of Hawzen
, or in refusing to allow famine aid to reach the Tigray region, where it was most needed, in 1985.
By the late 1980s the TPLF had evolved into a proper militia army with tens of thousands of members and a tight organization and gained more and more control over the north. In 1988 the TPLF and the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (EPDM) joined forces as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and were soon en route to victory.
With the collapse of the Eastern Bloc
and the impending demise of the Soviet Union, the Derg, without its previous outside support, was weakened to the point of collapse too; then old dictator Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe
and the TPLF/EPRDF took the capital Addis Ababa
and soon formed a new government. It was a remarkable victory of initially an amateur rebel group against a Soviet-backed hi-tech military machine. But the tides had turned in their favour.
By the time the TPLF reached this victorious point it had more or less dropped any references to its old Marxist-Leninist roots (realizing those days were over) and focused on democracy and building a unified nation. As it had also supported Eritrean independence, this was soon granted (in 1993).
The TPLF veteran Meles Zenawi became president/prime minister and held on to power until his sudden death in 2012. But the EPRDF continued to be a dominant force in Ethiopian politics and, to its credit, managed to turn Ethiopia around from civil-war ravaged desperation and poverty to become one of Africa’s most remarkable economic wonders (with year-on-year growth rates in double figures). And even though a long-lasting bloody war with neighbouring Eritrea ensued in the late 1990s, over an initially small territorial dispute, peace was eventually achieved. Tensions with the northern neighbour continued until recently, but in 2018 Ethiopia’s new prime minister (and EPRDF chairman) Abiy Ahmed moved towards reconciliation with the old enemy – which even earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
In the Tigrayan heartland, and its capital Mekele, the TPLF is still very much revered, and images of Meles Zenawi, mostly as a red-blooded agitating young revolutionary, can be seen everywhere – not least outside the big Martyrs Memorial complex.
This memorial was inaugurated ten years after the overthrow of the Derg in 2001. It’s a justified celebration of a victorious long struggle (at great human cost) but it also smacks a bit of the victor’s prerogative to have such a grandiose monument erected, the largest modern monument in the entire country.
What there is to see:
Once you’ve cleared security and paid for admission (there’s just one flat fee for the whole complex, the museums don’t charge extra), you find yourself inside the fenced complex at the bottom of the main road leading to the centre, which is lined with flags of Ethiopia
, the Tigray region and the TPLF.
You will long have spotted the tall main monument towering over everything, so it may well be your first port of call. Up some steps and past a water feature (which is not always on) you come to the plateau with the enormous red-marble column supported on four bent prongs (like a four-legged tripod) and a golden globe at the top. Directly underneath the monument it looked like there may have been an eternal flame – but at the time of my visit some refurbishment work was going on at that site so I cannot be sure.
While main monument is impressive for its size, the groups of sculptures that flank it are more interesting for the details. To the east is a group of civilians (peasants), complete with a donkey, marching towards the monument and away from a stylized bomb sticking in the ground unexploded – this is obviously to symbolize the displacement caused by war.
To the west is another such group, this time fighters, sporting various weapons, and marching determinedly into battle … except for a wife and child in a farewell embrace in the back, and behind them a wounded (or dead?) soldier is cradled by an old man, who looks uncannily like a cross between Lenin
and Leon Russell (or maybe Haile Selassie?). On their plinth is a bas-relief of a tank with a broken gun barrel and in front a red star is set into the grass that may once have been another water feature.
From the steps leading down from the monument you get a good view over the whole complex and beyond. To the left is a large yellow building complex that is the conference centre, library and assembly hall – all not open to normal visitors (as armed guards make sufficiently clear if necessary). The circular building to the right is the heart of the complex, at least from a dark-tourism perspective: the Martyrs Museum.
Under its large dome is an exhibition in several parts, one along the circular balcony, one around the lower level reached by a spiral walkway, plus some side rooms with special sections.
On the upstairs level are glass display cases
with guns and other war paraphernalia as well as plenty of black-and-white photo panels
plus a few bookcases
– including ones with the writings of Marx
and even Georgi Dimitrov (first head of communist Bulgaria
). In the niches on the outer side of the upstairs circular corridor are photo panels showing early TPLF gatherings, military training and revolutionary committee meetings and such like.
For those who don’t know much about the background of the TPLF (see above
!) this might be a little confusing and they may ask themselves “hang on, I thought the TPLF fought against
the communists!?!”. Indeed they fought the communist
Derg, but they started out as a competing communist organization themselves. Hence the rhetoric and lingo seem almost interchangeable. But of course it was the Derg who had assumed power and evolved into a ruthless military dictatorship, while the TPLF kept up the fight against this and for proper freedom.
Complementing the photo panels are a few display cases with various artefacts, from revolutionaries’ clothing to communications gear and even traditional musical instruments.
The labels are generally trilingual, in Tigrinya, Amharic and English. The English translations are quite often more than a little shaky – and a few of the mistakes are bordering on the involuntary comical. Others are hyperbolic to similarly funny degrees – a few examples can be seen in the gallery
In general, my main criticism of the exhibition, however, is not the linguistic accuracy of the labelling but the scarcity of information it conveys. Labels are rarely more than a few words long, and only a small handful of panels provide a bit more text, like one or two paragraphs, but then again in such a flowery style as to leave readers somewhat baffled. This means: if you do not know anything about the Tigrayan struggle against the Derg, then you won’t learn much (or indeed anything significant) about it here. So do come prepared!
Down the spiral walkway to the lower level under the dome you’ll find yet more black-and-white photo panels, mostly showing groups of TPLF fighters training, at leisure, in revolutionary committee meetings or at sporting competitions. Some photos also show the gruesome side of war, with casualties of battles as well as civilian victims, both from war and from famine. On the one side of the inner wall, there’s a solemn shrine to TPLF martyrs, with little portrait photos and lists of names, flanked by flags.
Partly hidden behind a black curtain I discovered a set of coffin-shaped objects
covered in TPLF and Tigray flags – and one of them had the flags pulled a bit back allowing a glimpse in: inside were the skeletal remains
of two (!!) bodies, with one of the skulls missing about a third of its cranium! On the wall behind these, yet more black-and-white photos show scenes from some of the atrocities committed by the Derg, including the bombing of the market in Hawzen
Inside the outer ring around the central hall one section has another extra exhibition, this time mostly of paintings, all related to the war and revolutionary struggle. Some are comparatively naïve and simple but quite a few I found really good, a couple almost Gothic in appeal, others overtly, radically political.
Back upstairs en route to the exit I passed another surprise exhibit: a somewhat battered upright piano in a glass case labelled “A piano that captured from the enemy in 1977” … aha.
On my way into the complex I had passed a sign that mentioned another museum called “open war museum” so I enquired with a guard, but he insisted “no, only one museum” pointing in the direction I had just come from. However, a bit further towards the way out I spotted another sign saying “open war museum” and followed it. Soon it became clear that what it meant was “open-air museum
”, displays of big exhibits such as planes, tanks, artillery and trucks. Amongst these some Soviet
-made war gear stands out, especially the MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighter planes and a Mil Mi-24 helicopter gunship, presumably captured from the Derg (as they had the Soviet military support, not the TPLF).
All in all
, it was an interesting two hours I spent at this complex, and it was at times touching, at times impressive, at times intriguing, and at other times a bit over the top (even comical), but overall very much worth the trip. Together with the Red Terror Museum
, this has to be Ethiopia
’s top dark-tourism site.
to the west of the centre of Mekele, northern Ethiopia
, just south of the big international stadium.
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: given it’s the main sight in Mekele it’s not difficult to find; inexpensive.
If you’re staying in Mekele’s top tourist hotel (Planet), it’s easily walkable, just turn left outside the hotel and walk to the top of the road to find the main entrance. It’ll take less than ten minutes. From further afield it’s best to take a bajaj (three-wheeled auto-rickshaw – Ethiopia
’s answer to the tuk-tuks of India
and elsewhere), which are pretty ubiquitous, or a taxi.
At the entrance expect some tight security, best bring ID as well. There are also armed guards around the complex to ensure you don’t wander where you’re not supposed to (such as the conference centre).
Opening times: daily 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Admission: a small fee, no more than the equivalent of 2 USD
Time required: about two hours in total
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Mekele is the standard starting point for most tours into the Danakil Depression
, so that would be the most obvious combination (and indeed for most travellers this is the only reason to come to Mekele in the first place).
Closer related to the topic of the Martyrs Museum, and in fact referenced in its exhibition, is Hawzen
ca. 35 miles (60 km) to the north of Mekele, where the bombing of the market in 1988 constituted what’s regarded as the worst atrocity committed by the Derg. There’s said to be a monument or even commemoration park, though I have not been able to really ascertain that.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Mekele doesn’t have much to offer in its own right, but being the capital of the Tigray region it’s a good jumping-off board for explorations of this region.
The Tigray is famous for being one the most scenic and culturally richest parts of Ethiopia
, so there’s plenty to see and do. The Gheralta escarpment
to the north of Hawzen
is a main focus point, both for spectacular landscape and for numerous rock-hewn churches
, many only accessible by precarious climbs with ladders and ropes into high-up secluded locations.
Another top place is Axum, considered to be the oldest continually inhabited city in Ethiopia (and indeed all of sub-Saharan Africa) and a World Heritage Site for its ancient monuments and churches.
There’s plenty more in the region and various specialist tours are on offer.
- Mekele 01 - Tigrayan Martyrs Memorial, sign by the entrance
- Mekele 02 - Tigrayan Martyrs Memorial, large compound
- Mekele 03 - Tigrayan Martyrs Monument with water feature
- Mekele 04 - Tigrayan Martyrs Monument with statuary
- Mekele 05 - Tigrayan Martyrs Monument soldier statues
- Mekele 06 - Tigrayan Martyrs Monument and statues
- Mekele 07 - Tigrayan Martyrs Monument fully sun-lit
- Mekele 08 - Tigrayan Martyrs Monument red star
- Mekele 09 - Tigrayan Martyrs Monument, tank bas relief
- Mekele 10 - Tigrayan Martyrs Monument, soldiers with halo
- Mekele 11 - Tigrayan Martyrs Monument, conference centre on the left
- Mekele 12 - Tigrayan Martyrs Museum on the right
- Mekele 13 - inside the Martyrs Museum
- Mekele 14 - Martyrs Museum
- Mekele 14b - the dome
- Mekele 15 - gun exhibits at the Martyrs Museum
- Mekele 16 - some exhibits are a bit bizarre
- Mekele 17 - Marxist grounding
- Mekele 18 - revolutionary clothes
- Mekele 19 - communication gear
- Mekele 20 - more modern guns
- Mekele 21 - traditional music gear
- Mekele 22 - Martyrs Museum, mostly photos
- Mekele 23 - TPLF symbol
- Mekele 24 - coffins
- Mekele 25 - you can peek into one
- Mekele 26 - to the open war museum
- Mekele 27 - what they mean is open-air war museum
- Mekele 28 - Soviet combat chopper
- Mekele 29 - MiGs
- Mekele 30 - Soviet-built tank
- Mekele 31 - missile launcher
- Mekele 32 - broken truck