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Qohaito is a plateau located at an elevation of about 2,600 m and 2,700 m above sea level. Situated between the Wadi-Haddas and the Wadi-Komaile the high mountain range gives way to a flat plateau, which extends about 16km in the south-north direction and varies between 4km and 400 meters in the shorter direction east-west. The total area is 32 square kilometers and the perimeter of the escarpment reaches about 84 kilometers.
The physical environment has stunning attributes with steep, rocky escarpment at all sides of the plateau and wide views to the high mountain ranges to the culminating at Ambasoira, the highest mountain in Eritrea reaching a height of 3,018 m above sea level. On a clear day the Red Sea can be seen from the lofty height of Qohaito.
In antiquity, Qohaito developed and prospered before the rise of Aksum as one of the precursors of the Aksumite civilizations and developed a complex society during the heyday of Aksum around 100-700 A.D. As part of a dominating regional civilization expanding from present day Sudan to the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula the ancient inhabitants of Qohaito benefited from extensive local trading networks as well as from foreign relations with the Roman and Byzantine Empires.
The ancient port of Adulis on the Red Sea coast was the empire's main emporium where two main routes lead into the highlands, either through Wadi-Haddas, or through Wadi-Komaile and both are passing close to the Qohaito plateau. Occupying a strategically important location Qohaito would be able to intercept and benefit from trade caravans travelling to and from Aksum. The high number of ancient urban centers reinforces the sentiment that the whole mountain area of the southern part of present day Eritrea was densely populated during the first millennium A.D. and a close interaction took place between the urban zones and the rural areas creating an interrelated commercial network depending on an extensive subsistence farming and cattle herding.
From the sheer number of archaeological remains it is obvious that Qohaito had an important position in the region, but very little is known about the socio-economic background of the ancient society, which developed as independent settlement at the Qohaito plateau.
The area seems to have been abandoned sometime around 900 A.D. and was subsequently left in relative isolation for centuries, until foreign travelers heard about this exceptional place in the middle of the 19th century and again made it known to the outside world through their travel accounts about the enigmatic archaeological monuments and sites on the plateau.
The Saho population in Qohaito, have occupied the plateau for centuries as pastoralists and farmers exploiting the scarce resources to sustain a livelihood on the plateau, which is marginal to human existence. The fields are used for grazing of highland cattle during the raining season and in the following months until the grass has been eaten away. Most of the livestock are then taken to the lowland to benefit from the winter rain there by early December, only to return to the plateau when the summer rain starts in June and the sowing of the fields has to take place.
The village setting and the vernacular architecture is so far preserved practically undisturbed by modern changes. However, the cost of maintaining and building traditional houses has become prohibitively high and the timber for the construction is no longer locally available in the required dimensions. These houses are now precious historic houses that need preservation as examples of a regional vernacular building tradition, which may not survive in other places.
The site boundary:
The boundary of the site is determined by the extension of the plateau as defined by the upper edge of the escarpment. The buffer zone includes the mountain slopes and associated landscapes, which form an interrelated social-economic environment comprising the five sub-zones of AdiQeih sub-regional administration. Listed from north to south the names are as follows: Karibosa, Safira, Subiraso, Masagolesula and Igila.
The boundaries are not yet mapped pending preparation of a digital map based on satellite images and Geographic Information System (GIS) technology.
On basis of the stated criteria (iii) and (v), Qohaito can be characterized as a Cultural Landscape according to the definition set out in the Operational Guidelines para. 47:
More specifically Qohaito can be considered as an organically evolved landscape in accordance with the requirements set out in Annex 3 of the Operational Guidelines.
The organically evolved landscape results from an initial social, economic, administrative, and/or religious imperative and has developed its present form by association with and in response to its natural environment. Such landscapes reflect that process of evolution in their form and component features.
They fall into two sub-categories, of which the second apply to Qohaito:
a continuing landscape is one which retains an active social role in contemporary society closely associated with the traditional way oflife, and in which the evolutionary process is still in progress. At the same time it exhibits significant material evidence ofits revolution over time.
On this basis the site is proposed for nomination to the World Heritage Tentative List under the category 2b, as a Continuing Organically Evolved Cultural Landscape on the basis of the following assessment:
The ancient cultural landscape of Qohaito is characterized by a high density of archaeological sites dating back to around 700 B.C. with the majority of archaeological sites relating to an extended early settlement of the plateau during the second to seventh century A.D. simultaneously with the rise of the Aksumite Kingdom. Qohaito, an urban garden city surrounded by many towns and hamlets, a major destination of the trade between Adulis and Aksum. Hence, Qohaito holds a tremendous potential for revealing the productive capacity of this part of ancient Eritrea, as well as the role of trade in its obvious prosperity, Local manufacturing and agricultural production are features of its history that beg to be better understood in terms of the indigenous economic system that underlay the prosperity associated with trade.
The temporary interruption of human activities since antiquity until the arrival of the Saho people is a distinctive attribute to Qohaito. The nomadic lifestyles of the Saho have left practically no traces in the archaeological record, leaving the archaeological landscape and the ancient sites largely undisturbed of subsequent development. This unique circumstance creates an exceptional possibility of studying the organization of land use, property and household resources in an extinct ancient society through archaeological research.
The special conditions and properties in Qohaito provide unique possibilities for comprehensive studies of the cultural and socio-economic condition of the ancient extinct society and its interrelationship with the natural environment. Only very few archaeological sites in the world have a similar potential for reconstructing the interrelationship between an ancient farming settlements and the related land use system within a well defined area.
The extent of the Qohaito plateau covering an area of 32 square kilometers scattered all over with the well preserved remains of an extinct complex society is unique, making it one of the most extensive archaeological landscapes in sub-Saharan Africa,
Statement of lntegrity
Qohaito is an exceptional place with dramatic natural features and great scenic beauty. The vertical cracks, deep gorges and great vistas to the surrounding mountain ranges create a unique feeling of unchanged wilderness contrasting with the network of foot paths that snakes through the steep and rocky terrain. The network of foot paths that meanders through the otherwise inaccessible steep and rocky terrain connecting settlements on isolated locations on the mountain slopes are unlikely to have changed significantly for centuries.
The archaeological investigations in neighbouring Adi-Qeih area and close affiliation with other known archaeological sites such as Tokonda 'e, Keskese and Matara have expanded the knowledge about an interrelated complex society in antiquity. Due to the geographical conditions and clearly defined location, the site of Qohaito has retained its cultural integrity and the archaeological remains have been left largely undisturbed.
There are some indications in the archaeological records of continued human activities from the antiquity until modem times. The modem population claims to have lived in the area for 20-30 generations. Local informants have also pointed out, that the recent stone houses have been built within the last 130 to 150 years, and it appears, therefore, that the permanent settlements, as we can now observe, are a relatively recent feature. Past land use may thus have been seasonal exploitation of the land, without permanent structures and settlements of humans, and because of the need of travelling light use of pottery in the households may have been very limited or totally absent.
The discontinuity of the extended occupation of the plateau by the end of gth century AD has left the ancient fabric virtually intact as part of an archaeological landscape, which remains basically as a pastoral landscape. The pastoralist livelihood of the Saho people, the present occupants of the plateau has left insignificant impact on the archaeological record, whereby a very significant proportion of the ancient sites have been preserved untouched by subsequent change in the environment since antiquity. This condition provides an exceptional possibility to reconstruct various aspects of an ancient extinct society in details, within an authentic and well defined archaeological landscape.
Conditions of Authenticity
The well preserved archaeological landscape is closely integrated with the subsequent use by the Saho pastoralists, demonstrating a unique and authentic example of harmonious co-existence between the archaeological landscape and the livelihood pattern of the Saho people primarily based on cattle herding and seasonal migration.
The traditional village setting and the vernacular architecture of the Saho is so far preserved practically undisturbed by modern changes, and the traditional settlements and Hidmo houses are now precious historic houses, are preserved as examples of an indigenous vernacular building tradition.
Ancient Qohaito has been closely affiliated to the neighboring civilizations embracing a group of sites from the same region and period that share distinguished architectural and artifactual features. Whereas extensive research has been conducted on Aksum relatively little research has been carried out on the affiliated sites Eritrea and only a few observations have so far provided some insight into the foundation of Qohaito and its cultural and socio-economic background.
Recent archaeological reconnaissance surveys at Hishmele and other sites around Adi-Qeih to the west of Qohaito, reveal the existence of extensive archaeological deposits indicating a widespread settlement pattern integrated into a common cultural system in the region. Just south of Adi-Qeih ancient archaeological remains can be seen near the village of Tokonda 'e, with exposed architectural fragments resembling sites at Qohaito. About 30 km further south spectacular ruins of the same period are located at Keskese and Matara. All of these sites are within a day's travel by foot from Qohaito Plateau. Situated strategically close to the major caravan trade route between the Red Sea port of Adulis and the Aksum capital city these sites provide the main access in antiquity. These places are important archaeological sites in their own rights representing similarities in mound composition, architectural details and ceramic tradition similar to Qohaito, which tentatively suggests a wider interrelated network of settlements forming a common cultural and socio-economic system in antiquity. However, they do not have the attributes of a continuing evolving cultural landscape within clearly defined boundaries that characterize the Cultural Landscape of Qohaito.