The sacred chest holding the Ten Commandments was worshipped and feared for centuries until suddenly, almost three thousand years ago, it disappeared.

Ask some Ethiopians, however, and the whereabouts of the Arc of the Covenant are far less mysterious. Legend holds that the Arc was spirited into Ethiopia, where it passed from church to church before coming to rest in the northern city of Aksum.

The Maryam Tsion monastery on Tulu Gudo Island is said to have held the Arc for nearly 70 years of its journey. Surrounded by the hippos and monitor lizards of Lake Ziway, the nearby church museum holds priceless relics dating from the tenth century.

But few tourists ever see these riches, tending to favor sights in Ethiopia’s north. The relics languish in a basement shed, without proper climate control or care. A lack of publicity and an underdeveloped value chain undermine the site’s incredible tourism potential.

With a new project funded by the Christensen Fund and implemented by Counterpart International, Tulo Gudo Island will earn its place on the international tourist map, bringing jobs and income to the communities around it, all while preserving these ancient relics.

“Increased tourism will directly benefit the communities who live around these sacred sites, allowing them to preserve and take pride in their cultural heritage while being able to provide for their families,” says Altrena Mukuria, Senior Director at Counterpart.

Preserving Relics, Promoting Culture

A private California-based foundation, the Christensen Fund provides financial and logistical support for indigenous-led and community-based organizations. The fund backs locally-recognized custodians of biocultural diversity and partners with nonprofits that take a similarly holistic and local approach to building the resilience of communities and ecosystems.

Counterpart’s Preserving Sacred Sites and Relics program will use the Fund’s $72,500 grant to build local organization’s capacity to renovate Tulu Gudo’s museum, publicize the attraction and bring residents into Ethiopia’s formal economy through the ecotourism sector.

“This project truly integrates the biological and cultural diversity of Tulu Gudo Island in a way that can lead to sustainable, resilient communities. At the same time it preserves the rich spiritual history of the region,” says Mukuria.

Over the past four years, Counterpart has developed these communities’ ability to manage and grow a sustainable tourism infrastructure—forming associations for tour guides and boat operators and preparing residents for the coming jobs.

The newly awarded grant will go towards renovating the doors and windows of the existing museum and building design elements such as shelves and climate-controlled display cases to keep artifacts protected.

It will also go towards marketing the new museum, publicizing it for the tour operators who create package itineraries for travelers. And it will train 25 community members in museum, tourism and financial management to handle the expected growth in tourists.

The museum project has also received a $15,000 donation from the Royal Netherlands Embassy which will begin the construction to set the foundation and walls of the new museum. Counterpart is proud to partner with the Embassy and the International Orthodox Christian Charities on this initiative.

Short and Long-Term Results

Counterpart expects tourism to jump significantly within the first year after the museum is built. Religious pilgrims—already the largest group to visit Ziway—are expected to flock to the island once the museum opens.

With proper financial management and continuing guide training, the community could realize a 60 percent increase in tourists.

Such an upswing would translate into more formal jobs and greater incomes for the poor communities around the island, who currently rely on cutting down trees for money or fuel.

Counterpart has a successful history creating partnerships and building the capacity of organizations to strengthen communities through locally-managed tourism. Its ongoing Ethiopian Sustainable Tourism Alliance program works with six organizations to develop ecotourism and handicraft industries around the country. The program has brought economic benefits to 4,154 Ethiopians to date.

Making the trip

For tourists interested in visiting the Tulo Gudo museum, Roots of Ethiopia offers daily tours through local Ethiopian tour operators. Tourists should visit the Roots of Ethiopia website for more information and to book their trip: http://rootsofethiopia.com/en/long-tulu-gudo-island-adventure.

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