Yeha - Saba' (Sheba) Kingdom Site in Ethiopia

The Best Preserved Saba' Kingdom Site in the Horn of Africa

Great Temple at Yeha
Great Temple at Yeha. Jialiang Gao

Yeha is a large Bronze Age archaeological site located about 25 km (~15 miles) northeast of the modern town of Adwa in Ethiopia. It is the largest and most impressive archaeological site in the Horn of Africa showing evidence of contact with South Arabia, leading some scholars to describe Yeha and other sites as precursors to the Aksumite civilization.

The earliest occupation at Yeha dates to the first millennium BC. Surviving monuments include a well-preserved Great Temple, a "palace" perhaps an elite residence called Grat Be'al Gebri, and the Daro Mikael cemetery of rock-cut shaft-tombs. Three artifact scatters probably representing residential settlements have been identified within a few kilometers of the main site but have not to date been investigated.

The builders of Yeha were part of the Sabaean culture, also known as Saba', speakers of an old South Arabian language whose kingdom was based in Yemen and who are thought to have been what the Judeo-Christian bible names as the land of Sheba, whose powerful Queen is said to have visited Solomon.

Chronology at Yeha

  • Yeha I: 8th-7th centuries BC. Earliest structure located at the palace at Grat Be'al Gebri; and a small temple where the Great Temple would be constructed later.
  • Yeha II: 7th-5th centuries BC. Great Temple and the palace at Grat Be'al Gebri built, elite cemetery at Daro Mikael begun.
  • Yeha III: Late first millennium BC. Late phase of construction at Grat Be'al Gebri, tombs T5 and T6 at Daro Mikael.

Great Temple of Yeha

The Great Temple of Yeha is also known as the Almaqah Temple because it was dedicated to Almaqah, the main god of the Saba' kingdom. Based on construction similarities to others in the Saba' region, the Great Temple was likely built in the 7th century BC. The 14x18 meter (46x60 foot) structure stands 14 m (46 ft) high and was constructed of well-made ashlar (cut stone) blocks measuring up to 3 m (10 ft) long. The ashlar blocks fit together tightly without mortar, which, say scholars, contributed to the structure's preservation over 2,600 years after it was built. The temple is surrounded by a cemetery and enclosed by a double wall.

Foundation fragments of an earlier temple have been identified beneath the Great Temple and likely date to the 8th century BC. The temple is located on an elevated location next to a Byzantine church (built 6th c AD) which is higher still. Some of the temple stones were borrowed to build the Byzantine church, and scholars suggest there may have been an older temple where the new church was built.

Contruction Characteristics

The Great Temple is a rectangular building, and it was marked by a double-denticulate (toothed) frieze that still survives in places on its northern, southern, and eastern façades. The faces of the ashlars display typical Sabaean stone masonry, with smoothed margins and a pecked center, similar to those at the Saba' kingdom capitals such as the Almaqah Temple at Sirwah and the 'Awam Temple in Ma'rib.

In front of the building was a platform with six pillars (called a propylon), which provided access to a gate, a broad wooden door frame, and double doors. The narrow entrance led to an interior with five aisles created by four rows of three squarish pillars. The two side aisles in the north and south were covered by a ceiling and above it was a second story. The central aisle was open to the sky. Three wooden-walled chambers of equal size were located at the eastern end of the temple interior. Two additional cultic rooms extended out from the central chamber. A drainage system leading to a hole in the southern wall was inserted into the floor to assure that the temple interior was not flooded by rainwater.

Palace at Grat Be'al Gebri

The second monumental structure at Yeha is named Grat Be'al Gebri, sometimes spelled as Great Ba'al Guebry. It is located a short distance from the Great Temple, but in a comparatively poor state of preservation. The building's dimensions were likely 46x46 m (150x150 ft) square, with a raised platform (podium) of 4.5 m (14.7 ft) high, itself built of volcanic rock ashlars. The exterior façade had projections at the corners.

The front of the building once also had a propylon with six pillars, the bases of which have been preserved. The stairs leading up to the propylon are missing, although the foundations are visible. Behind the propylon, there was a huge gate with a narrow opening, with two massive stone doorposts. Wooden beams were inserted horizontally along the walls and penetrating into them. Radiocarbon dating of the wooden beams dates construction between early 8th-late 6th centuries BC.

Necropolis of Daro Mikael

The cemetery at Yeha consists of six rock-cut tombs. Each tomb was accessed via a staircase along 2.5 m (8.2 ft) deep vertical shafts with one grave chamber on each side. The entrances to the tombs were originally blocked by rectangular stone panels, and other stone panels sealed the shafts at the surface, and then all was covered by a mound of stone rubble.

A stone enclosure fenced in the tombs, although it is unknown whether they were roofed or not. The chambers were up to 4 m (13 ft) in length and 1.2 m (4 ft) in height and were originally used for multiple burials, but all were looted in antiquity. Some displaced skeletal fragments and broken grave goods (clay vessels and beads) were found; based on grave goods and similar tombs at other Saba' sites, the tombs probably date to the 7th-6th c BC.

Arabian Contacts at Yeha

Yeha period III has traditionally been identified as a pre-Axumite occupation, based primarily on the identification of evidence for contact with South Arabia. Nineteen fragmentary inscriptions on stone slabs, altars and seals have been found at Yeha written in a South Arabian script.

However, excavator Rodolfo Fattovich notes that the South Arabian ceramics and related artifacts recovered from Yeha and other sites in Ethiopia and Eritrea are a small minority and do not support the presence of a consistent South Arabian community. Fattovich and others believe that these do not represent a precursor to the Axumite civilization.

The first professional studies at Yeha involved a small excavation by the Deutsche Axum-Expedition in 1906, then part of the Ethiopian Institute of Archaeology excavations in 1970s led by F. Anfrayin. In the 21st century investigations have been conducted by the Sana'a Branch of the Orient Department of the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) and the Hafen City University of Hamburg.

Sources

  • Wolf P, and Nowotnick U. 2010. The Almaqah temple of Meqaber Ga'ewa near Wuqro (Tigray, Ethiopia). Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 40:367-380.