Islam’s Safe Haven, Sacred Al Najashi Mosque, its Fight for Survival

The Al Nejashi Mosque, situated in Ethiopia’s northern town of Negash, holds immense historical and religious importance. Recognized as one of Africa’s earliest mosques and among the oldest globally, it bears the name of King Negash. The mosque is a powerful symbol of compassion and support, a testament to the king’s act of refuge for the early Muslim followers (Sahabah) persecuted by Mecca’s Quraysh tribe. This act led to the establishment of the first Muslim settlement in Negash. The mosque embodies Ethiopia’s warm welcome to these early Muslims and the nation’s deep-rooted historical ties to Islam.

Despite its rich heritage, the Tigray region, where Negash is located, has faced significant challenges in attracting tourists due to the recent devastating civil war and ongoing conflict. Efforts to promote tourism, including the mosque’s restoration by the Turkish government, have been hampered, EBR’s Samuel Getachew, who visited the site to compile this report, highlights.

A few years before the conflict in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray State erupted; there was a raging debate about turning a small village an hour’s drive from the regional state’s capital, Mekelle, into an international tourist destination worth visiting.

With a devastating two-year civil war now over but which inflicted considerable distraction in the region and its historical sites, with thousands killed and millions displaced and facing imminent famine, whether that dream can be turned into reality is everyone’s wild guess.

Negash, home to a few thousand inhabitants, has a landscape dotted with madhouses, which is its hallmark. Coupled with its destitute farmers, the town is becoming noticed for its historical mosque, Al Negashi.

The mosque stood for something great and was on a revival trajectory.

Sadly, the village hosting the mosque, Negash, is gradually becoming a ghost town with a limited number of visitors.

Located in the suburbs of Wukro, a small town 60km away from Mekelle, it is dotted with unfinished, poorly imagined buildings frequented by Catholic missionaries on their way to the more vibrant and emerging city of Adigrat, 35 kilometers from the Ethiopian-Eritrean border. The suburbs were revered for hosting the historic mosque.

The area attracted some tourists as it was considered by locals as the “second Mecca” from the 7th century; its stature, as one of Africa’s oldest mosques, even attracted support from far away.

The Tigray Tourism Bureau has needed help attracting tourists to their once-booming tourism sector.

This year, it announced about 1000 international tourists came to visit, and most of the local tourism occurred during religious pilgrims, replacing the economic tourism impact the region once had.

The region was a hot tourist spot in its heyday, and the Al Negashi mosque was supposed to lure many more.

In 2016, the Turkish government supported its refurbishment after years of neglect. The government brought in experts from Turkey to restore it, adding modern toilets, and re-inaugurated it amid fanfare and pomp in 2018.

The Turkish government had big dreams for its investment.

The Embassy announced then, “The project restored the tombs and made them fit for visitors. The design will promote tourism and, as a result, contribute to infrastructure such as hotels, shopping malls, restaurants, and museums in the area.”

“Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) completed the restoration of the Al-Nejashi mosque, the tomb of the then Axumite King Ahmed Negash and 15 tombs of the companions of Prophet Muhammed,” the Embassy mused.

There were big expectations and excitement.

The success of such restoration was hoped to spread to other historical sites within the State of Tigray, perhaps as a way to use visitor resources and bring excitement to a neglected part of northern Ethiopia. But that development was short-lived.

During its restoration, a controversial Nigerian entrepreneur named Wanie Akinbodoye visited the area and rushed to Addis Ababa in 2017 to announce it had inked a deal with yet another local controversial company, Aklog General Trading, to create a mega-resort which they called it will be “Africa’s biggest resort”.

“We are going to create thousands of jobs and bring the world’s attention to it and totally give it the significant attention it deserves”, he said.

The duo said they would invest USD 1.5 billion in the project and, the same night, abruptly said the right figure would be about USD 100 million.

That did not matter for the Tigray Tourism Bureau, which needed more verification and background checks on the investors. It celebrated the announcement as it had little hope of doing what was announced.

So far, the project by the Nigerian citizen has yet to materialize, adding to Negash’s botched dream.

A tour guide based in Mekelle, Yosef Alemu, said there are few interests in it now that the legacy of war is still within the region, while some people stop by for a quick tour of the mosque, use its public toilet and depart since the majority of visitors are more interested in climbing atop the rock-hewn churches.

“The war just destroyed its significance and even our persuasion doesn’t seem to convince tourists unfortunately. The conversation we have with tourists is exclusively about the war and how we survived it and not about the story behind our history,” he said.

Another tour guide said that despite the Tigray regional government commencing its tourism initiatives, very few are coming.

“There are more charity workers visiting us, than tourists wanting to be exposed to the historical sites in the region and few are interested in travelling outside Mekelle fearing for safety and security and rarely stop by to Negash unless it’s for a photo-op and a quick break”, he told EBR.

Today, Negash is what it used to be, primarily poor, improvised and consisting of villagers whose lives have been impacted by the legacy of the bloody Tigray war.

Many whose lives were supposed to have improved with Negash’s restoration and revival have found that little has changed, and most of their livelihoods have been paused.

A resident, Habtom Kibrom, 44, lives not far from the mosque and near the village’s lone bar, which sells cheap beer and affordable cuisine influenced by the next major city. Adigrat told EBR that fewer tourists are currently arriving, and most are passersby heading somewhere else.

“All the diverse faces we see are history and there are fewer and fewer people coming nowadays”, he said, recalling the shelling that occurred in the early weeks of the conflict.

He said that during the civil war, the shelling of the village was so overwhelming that most villagers hid inside the mosque looking for shelter.

That was until it was hit hard and was partially destroyed.

“We did not have the luxury or means to protect it unfortunately. We used it as a shelter and our main concern was saving the lives of our families”, he said.

Most of his friends and neighbours who were supposed to work as guides have left the village, looking for greener pastures elsewhere. For him and a few others who have stayed behind, the father of five hopes things will change, and the village’s dream will eventually be realized.

The Turkish government announced a plan to restore the mosque again this year.

The Al Nejashi Mosque, a treasure trove of history that transcends its physical walls, is indeed one of the first mosques built in Africa. It holds immense significance for Muslims worldwide. Understanding its historical weight and promoting its restoration can position Ethiopia as a unique player in the burgeoning Halal tourism market, fostering a vibrant local economy and attracting much-needed foreign currency.

The mosque’s significance is deeply rooted in the early days of Islam. When the first Muslims faced persecution in Mecca, they found refuge in the Ethiopian kingdom under King Negash. This act of compassion, immortalized in the mosque’s name, represents the harmonious coexistence of Islam and Christianity in Ethiopia’s past. For Muslims worldwide, Al Nejashi is a testament to tolerance and acceptance during a critical juncture in Islamic history. A visit to this mosque is a pilgrimage to a physical structure and a time and place where interfaith understanding flourished.

With its rich Islamic heritage and historical ties to the Middle East, Ethiopia is well-positioned to capitalize on the rapidly growing Halal tourism market. This sector caters to Muslim travellers seeking destinations that align with their religious beliefs and cultural practices. By restoring the Al Nejashi Mosque, developing the additional tourist infrastructure, and promoting its story, Ethiopia can offer a unique experience unavailable elsewhere. Imagine Muslim tourists performing prayers in a mosque of immense historical significance and exploring the cultural tapestry woven from Islamic and Christian threads that define Ethiopia.

The economic benefits of such a focus on Halal tourism are undeniable. Countries like Turkey, Malaysia, and the United Arab Emirates have seen significant growth in their tourism sectors by embracing their Islamic heritage and catering to Muslim travellers. These nations have invested in infrastructure, created Muslim-friendly amenities, and promoted historical and cultural sites. The resulting influx of tourists has boosted their economies and fostered a sense of local pride and cultural rejuvenation.

With its breathtaking landscapes, ancient civilizations, and unique blend of religions, Ethiopia can follow this successful model. By restoring the Al Nejashi Mosque and promoting its significance, Ethiopia can attract a new segment of tourists, generate much-needed foreign currency, and create a vibrant local economy surrounding the mosque. This economic revitalization can then be reinvested in infrastructure, education, and cultural preservation, creating a virtuous cycle that benefits the local community and the nation.

The Al Nejashi Mosque is more than just a historical landmark; it symbolises tolerance, a potential economic engine, and a bridge between Ethiopia’s rich past and promising future. By embracing this treasure and promoting its story to the world, Ethiopia can contribute to interfaith understanding and solidify its position as a unique and compelling destination in the global Halal tourism market. EBR

12th Year • April 2024 • No. 128

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