In a rural part of the Tigray area, a few hours drive from Axum lies Yeha, a beautiful and tranquil place. In this province, Ethiopia’s historic route begins with the look at the spectacular remains.
It is the earliest recorded civilization of Ethiopia nearly three million years ago during the bronze age. It has structures such as temples, residences, and tombs made from rocks solid walls with no windows and no mortar.
Yeha, What Was Before Axum
The powerful kingdom of Axum which is found in Ethiopia, at the highlands of Tigray was at its peak during the first millennium BC. It had trade connections through the red Sea to Europe and China. It had agriculture and architecture works that were ahead of its time.
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It was once the greatest empires parallel to the Roman, Chinese and Persian civilizations. Yet what was the time before the Axum?
Yeha is a fascinating civilization in a less-known territory before the rise of Axum. It is frequently known as the pre-Aksumite civilization.
It’s period began in the early first millennium BC (ca. 800–700 BC) and is marked by the appearance of nucleated settlements, complex stratified societies and kingdoms, monumental architecture, metal production, and writing (Rodolfo_Fattovich, The Development of Ancient States in the Northern Horn of Africa, c. 3000 BC-AD 1000: An Archaeological Outline)
Origins of Yeha Civilization
There was trade contact between northern Africa and southwest Arabia. But in time developed even more cultural ties. Earlier archeologists believe some immigrates from southern Arabia settled in northern Ethiopia.
In the 1st century, BC immigrants from the Sabaean region together with the indigenous population established strong trade routes through the red sea. Through these trade routes flourished the Yeha civilization.
Yeha had the influence of the South Arabians. It had characters of south Arabian elements. This lead to the debate as to whether it was founded by Sabean settlers or was the Ethiopians influenced by Sabean culture and ideas. Currently, it is believed that it was made by the mix of these groups. Fragmented inscriptions on stone slabs, altars, and seals were found in Yeha written in Sabean language.
The architecture of the Yeha Civilization
Although little has been revealed about the civilization of Yeha, the architecture provides the majority of the evidence. It has proven about the civilization culture, religion language, and other social aspects. Most of the findings architecture of religious aspects but in recent years residential life are being revealed as well.
The investigation for archeological findings began in the Rocky Mountains Southwest of wukro, around the village of meqaber Ga’ewa. An unusual stone structure appeared during a local quarry. This was carved limestone with inscriptions.
These findings were unexpected in that part of Tigray region. They were only tending to occur much further to the north near the Aksum and the Eritrea region. Then the local archeologists contacted a specialist from the North African archeology.
After careful excavation, a structure was revealed. It was 13m by 9m in size. It’s is a flat, undressed limestone. It is put in a large enclosure.
The main building of the carved limestone had a large stepped entrance with porch. It had a central room and three smaller rooms at the back. In the central area of the built structure is a fascinating discovery.
It is a visible stone altar. It consists of well-decorated narrow steps on its base and false windows similar to the Axum monolithic obelisks. And on the top is a deep square carved basin. Perhaps through this, the sacrificed animal blood would flow from through to another basin.
On the back of the shrine is another sanctuary.
This contained further limestone objects. This where a stone with Sabean inscription and miniature altars. The Sabean inscriptions on this altar supplied vital clues in the history of the altar. The inscriptions proved that the temple of meqaber Ga’ewa has dedicated to Alamqah; a chief God of the Arabians.
The back of this temple where spectacular polished cobblestones. They formed pre-Islamic shrines. Another important note was the mention of a King’s mother. It was rare to give recognition to women in South Arabia. But in North-Eastern Africa it was very common.
The civilization of Kush in Sudan women had a significant political role. It was the Queen and the king’s mother who was depicted in temples while the king’s had only matrilineal claims.
Great Temple of Yeha
The grand temple of Yeha was located 50km east of the city Axum. It is one of the antique standing structures of Ethiopia. Currently, this temple stands within the grounds of a Christian Church.
Thus it is used for religious activities by priests and members of the church. And the area around the temple is used for burial purposes. Today not much remains of the building original state.
The Yeha temple measures 19m by 15 meters It has a dramatic entrance with more than six steps. It has a rectangular form. The longest side extends from the East to the west. It is constructed on a bedrock surface with a larger podium as a stable foundation. The walls are smooth limestone blocks. They are laid without any mortar.
The north, south, and west walls are double-walled; they are 1.2 to 1.4 meters wide. At some interval, the stones are made perpendicular for extra strength and stability. The East wall seems to be thicker with 3 layers of wall.
This was probably to maintain more stability because it was built on a sloping terrain. All the four walls had a rise of 13 meters. On the west wall is a large doorway, currently damaged. But it is believed that it had rectangular and square mortise holes with iron tenons.
Today, the four walls remain intact to the height of six meters. This raises the thinking that the structure above the six meters was built less stable.
The main space of the Yeha Temple had a house of Altar which had similar characteristics with the meqaber of Gawa. It is said that the limestone which Yeha was built from is brought from wuquro.
Although there are no adequate findings of the temple of yeha scholars claim that the weight of roofs was supported by load-bearing walls and pillars every two meters span. Evidence suggests that there where twelve pillars.
This pillar support is dressed 1m by 1.5 meters. They are located 1.5 meters from the north and south walls and 2 meters from the west Wall. But on the central area (nave) the roof could have been supported by lintel and post. But the eastern platform is raised above the other level of supports.
The temple of Yeha was abandoned on the late pre-Axum times, the roof collapsed the interior partition walls that divided the rooms was damaged. Which once had two floors and a partially covered roof, was left as an empty crypt. The ruins of the temple have been reused in construction
Grat Be’al Gebri
The earliest Architecture in yeha is located at the palace grate be’al Gebri. It was constructed from 8th to 7th century BC. It is located in the northeast of the temple of Yeha. The structure was once a castle, it is estimated 2500 sq meters and it’s recognized for its unique, square-segmented, solid columns.
The entrance was at the front, It had raised platform which was 4.5 meters high. The platform was made from volcanic rock. On the exterior, the corners had characters of projections. It also has six pillars. These pillars have been preserved but the stairs that lead to the entrance have been lost although some ruins still exist.
At the back of the entrance, is an enormous gate with a narrow opening. Penetrating them where wooden beams. This beams had strong evidence in providing the time of this construction. The radiocarbon dating of these wooden beams dates to the 8th to the 6th century BC.
After the latest investigations, the Grat Be’al Gebri multi-storeyed half-timber complex is thought to be the greatest preserved roofed timber frame structure of South Arabia and Eastern Africa and possibly the oldest of Eastern Africa.
The construction-technique with horizontal assembled girders differs considerably from its South Arabian prototypes but continues in the Axumite architecture such as those displayed at the famous stele of Axum and later on, in the modern age building traditions of Ethiopian churches. Its cultural and historical significance, even for Ethiopian building history, can be highly appreciated for this reason.
Yeha was the center of the administrative and trade power of society. It had religious buildings, residences, and tombs. Yeha beyond the architecture was a stepping stone for the Great Axum civilization. It’s trade routes through the red Sea which led to it’s the economical growth of Yeha was very important for the Axum empire origin.
Thus is one of the most prestigious civilizations in the horn of Africa. Scholars say there is yet much to be revealed in this area. The conservation for the Yeha will requires short term and long term measures that include stabilization, preservation, maintenance, and development activities. There also must be an aggressive effort put forth to raise funds to support the conservation program.
- Highlands, G. B.-b. (n.d.). Grat Beal Gebri – building history Analysis of a Monumental Building of the early 1st Millennium BC. Chr. In the Ethiopian Highlands.
- Phillipson, A. C. (n.d.).
- Rodolfo_Fattovich. (n.d.). The Development of Ancient States in the Northern Horn of Africa, c. 3000 BC-AD 1000: An Archaeological Outline.