Yeha – Small Town With Long History [opinion]

Yeha is described as “a large Bronze Age archaeological site and the most impressive site in the Horn of Africa showing evidence of contact with South Arabia.” Our reporter recently visited the small ancient town in Ethiopia with an abundance of history.

Driving through dusty and un-tarred road into Yeha community with landmarks like its community school, for a Nigerian could be reminiscent of a lot of familiar settings in the West African country. The difference is that not many of such Nigerian roads lead to a building constructed as far back as the 7th century BC.

The rocky and winding roads betray nothing of the massive history they ferry tourists to let alone the fact that Yeha is one of Ethiopia’s major cities in the Tigrai region going more than 2000 years ago. The predominant peasant life and the seeming lack of basic amenities like water, reflect nothing of a capital which once was considered a super power in its time.

Yeha was the capital of the Damot Empire and predates the Axumite Empire, which emerged following the decline of its power. Notwithstanding its current state, it was a longed for destination to see on the trip across northern Ethiopian cities for our reporter.

Walking through the gate, visitors pass through a small ancient cemetery with stelae grave markings which navigate tourists to the ancient temple of Yeha to the right or the museum to the left.

Information on the notice board of the complex informs that the cemetery is home to several rock-hewn shaft tombs which were first investigated in the early 1960s. “One authority has speculated that one of these tombs contained a royal burial, while another believes the ancient residential area was likely one kilometre to the east of the modern village,” the notice says.

“During the 1st Millennium BC the deceased were buried in chambers, which were accessible by deep shafts, cut up to a depth of metres into natural rock. The chambers were closed with stone blocks, and the shafts covered with stone slabs. The tombs were used for multiple burials. Asides the remains of the skeletons, jewelry, pottery, vessels and bronze stamp seals with South Arabian letters were found,” tourists further learnt from the notice.

The first port of call was the temple built in the 7th century BC. It is Ethiopia’s oldest still standing construction. Still sturdily set, the stone blocks which have withstood several years of weather conditions and environmental and human forces, have stayed in place, without mortar or any binding agent.

Although it is believed that the Sabaean civilisation built the temple for their pagan faith and a deity named Ilmukah, tour guide Mengistu Temaske explained that there is no precise story on the purpose for which the temple was erected. However, the remains of statues and engravings recovered tend to suggest that it had links with a fertility cult.

Some other records available in the complex state that the temple was dedicated to the highest deity of Saba, the god Almaqah: “Following South Arabian models the entrance of the temple was equipped originally with six stone pillars. The 14-metre high walls were made of limestone ashlars quarried in the region of Mekele. Since the early Christian period the building has been used as a church.”

Yeha is also home to an Ethiopian Orthodox monastery founded in the 6th century by Abba Afse, one of the nine saints, a group of missionaries who were important in the initial growth of Christianity in modern day Ethiopia, in the late 5th century.

Online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, says: “In his account of Ethiopia, Francisco Aacute;lvares mentions visiting this town in 1520 (which he called “Abbafaccedil;em”), and provides a description of the ancient tower, the monastery, and the local church. This church was either the rededicated Great Temple, or a now destroyed building which the Deutsche Aksum-Expedition described in the early 20th century.”

The church was closed at the time our reporter visited but some faithful were seen visiting it to say prayers around its walls with artistic representations of saints.

Visitors were led to the museum next door where a priest cum custodian educated tourists with the tour guide interpreting, about the stone slabs with Sabaean and Ge’ez writing. He also showed guests some ancient centuries-old holy books from well-preserved goat skin.

The museum catalogues Yeha’s history and culture as well as items from archaeological excavations and findings from architectural and scientific research. They chronicle different stages and evolution of the empire’s history.

Tour guides inform that the Yeha region is composed of volcanic rocks that form the mountains around the village: “The basement is made of basalts and a few metamorphic rocks. Some kilometres to the east sandstone deposits occur that were used as building materials for the temple pavement and the monument stones of the Grat Be’al Gebri. In Antiquity the Yeha basin was filed with fertile soils, and the mountains were covered by dense forests.”

A remarkable formation was that of a mountain shaped like the head of a lion. Considering that Yeha was one of the earliest ports for Christianity in Ethiopia, it is believed that, the town is being protected by the “Lion of Judah,” Temaske joked.

Just as it was time to depart the complex our reporter noticed a separate group of tourists emerging from a corner a few poles away from the complex. When she asked what was going on there, the chorused response was “more ruins.”

Curiosity was immediately triggered as she raced her 80kg body in the direction. Behold there were indeed more ruins, but these ruins were of the famous Grat Be’al Gebri immediately recognisable from previously viewed photographs.

Ecstatic to take photos of them first and get the details of their story from the guide later, our reporter immediately set to work. Grat Be’al Gebri is a ruined palace distinguished by a portico, 10 metres wide and two sets of square pillars.

Grat Be’al Gebri, which is said to have been the administrative centre of Yeha, is the largest building on the Northern Horn of Africa. It was erected in a singular timber framework technique in the early 1st Millennium BC, on a six-metre high podium consisting of at least three storeys, tour guides at the premises informed.

“Six stone pillars, originally almost 10 metres high, adorned the entrance area with two monumental stone door posts,” they said.

Although in a state which is a glory of its original self, one could imagine from its remains that it was an elitist residence which held all the signs of royalty.