The Cultural Heritage of Yeha
Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Ethiopia
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The site of Yeha is located in a modern town hidden by the Adwa chains of mountains about 53 km to the west of the World Heritage Site of Aksum in Central Administrative zone of Tigray National Regional State in northern Ethiopia. It is located in a fertile basin with an altitude of 2150 m surrounded by spectacular volcanic mountain chains. It is a sacred place for the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, a living memory and religious practices of the same believers since the foundation of the Monastery of Abune Aftsie in the six century AD by one of the Nine Saints who came to the Northern Horn from the Europe and the Middle East in the same century for evangelization.
The site preserves two complex monumental buildings known as the Grat Be’al Geubri Palace and the Grand Temple of Yeha and two cemetery areas called the rock cut shaft tombs of Da’ero Mikael and the rock cut tombs of Abiy Addi dating to the early and middle of the first millennium BC. It also preserves rich intact underground archaeological structures located around these monumental structures and around the tombs mentioned above dating to the same period.
The Great Temple of Yeha which dates to about the 7th century BC was dedicated to the god of Almaqah. It was built on a hill top in excellent engineering techniques of dry masonry by joining large dressed blocks of stones. It is a rectangular building measuring 18.5 by 15 m with a single entrance that survives up to a maximum height of 14 m. Regular rectangular dressed block of stones up to 3 m long were used to build its walls without mortar. Meticulous attention was given to dress the outer faces, edges and corners giving an impression that the lines among the blocks that were carved into a superb monolithic structure. The walls of the temple are well preserved. The interior of the building presents an amazing construction style where it is possible to see the wall, of which its total thickness is about 60 cm, is not just a single structure where two walls interconnected to each other by smaller blocks of stones that serve as anchors. The floor is also superbly built with 5 layers of different size of dressed block of stones, some measuring 1 m by 50 cm, others 1m by 1m and 50 cm by 50 cm.
The temple was converted to a monastery in the 6th century AD, as it can be understood from the baptistery that is found inside the Great Temple. The monastery was moved to its nearby present location in the early 20th century AD. It is, thus, considered by the Ethiopians as a sacred place, symbol of national pride and cultural identity which is deep rooted in Ethiopian history in general and the Northern Horn in particular.
The second monumental structure of Yeha is the Palace of Be’al Geubri dating to the 8th century BC is located about 200 m to the north east of the Great Temple. It measures at least 27 meter high with five floors on a squared ground plan of about 60 x 60 m. It has a protruding stepped podium measuring up to 6 m high, built with local stones and lime mortar.
The building has axial symmetry with projections at the corners and in the middle sides like the Aksumite palaces of the first millennium AD. The entrance is located at the south- eastern flank and is designed as monumental propylene with 6 monolithic pillars built with local sandstone, and was accessible by ascending wide flight of stairs. The pillars originally had the heights of more than 10 m, of which 3.60 m are still preserved and each pillar weighs about 20 tons. The main stone gate which was built with local sandstone of more than 6 m in height has an entrance of 1.10 m wide. The interior of the building has two corridors running in an east-west direction from which all rooms were accessible.
It was a multi-storey palace, constructed in wood-stone architecture. It is the largest known timber-framed building in East Africa and South Arabia and the oldest example south of the Sahara. It marks the beginning of a long tradition of wood-framed constructions which is crucial for understanding the building traditions in the Northern Horn.
The Da’ero Mikael rock tombs that cover an area of 250 m² are located about 300 m to the south east of the Great Temple near to the Valley of Shillanat excavated by Francis Anfray in the 1960s and 1970s. Seventeen series of rock-cut graves dating to the first millennium BC that may have belonged to the rulers who probably lived at the palace of Grat Bea’l Geubri were excavated (Fattovich, 1990). These vertical shafts lead to one or more tomb-chambers. The grave contents of these tombs included abundant pottery, copper-alloy sickles, zoomorphic seals, other tools, and an alabaster vessel that witness the artistic and technological sophistication of the time.
The other rock cut tombs of Yeha are found at the foot hill of Abiy Addi across the valley of Shillanat to the south west of the Grand Temple. Nine rock-cut tombs were partly observed located next to each other in various orientations in an area of 500 m². They were cut into the rock up to two to three meters deep. A rectangular shaft of 2 x 0, 6 m leads to one or two sub-rectangular chambers with different sizes of up to 0.9 m height and 2–3.8 m in length where collective burials took place, most probably successively over a long period during the first millennium BC.
Similar rock cut tombs dating to the first millennium BC are not known in the eastern sides of the Red Sea. They are only common in the stratified communities of the Northern Horn dating from the first millennium BC to the early first Millennium AD as it can be understood from some pre-Aksumite and Aksumite sites.
The above archaeological evidence shows that the site of Yeha has outstanding universal values that merit for the inclusion to the World Heritage List. It testifies the earliest evidence for the emergence of complex culture in the Northern Horn in particular and in the sub Saharan Africa in general. This testimony is traceable in the construction techniques and designs of the Palace of Grat Be’al Geubri and the Grand Temple and religion and cultural practices, artistic handicrafts and inscriptions. The site of Yeha was also a political, religious and cultural Centre of highly centralized complex societies that flourished at Yeha in the early first Millennium BC in what is now the Northern Horn (Tigray and Eritrean). It was also the first capital city of the Ethiopia state before its transfer to Aksum.
These discoveries have increased the importance of Yeha as one of the earliest complex cultures in the Northern Horn that merit for the inclusion to the World Heritage List. In addition, Yeha has also great potential for future archaeological researches to study the origin and development of stratified societies in the Northern Horn as it preserves rich intact archaeological structures that further supports its inclusion to the World Heritage List. The justification for the proposed World Heritage List is presented below.
Justification of Outstanding Universal Value
Criterion (i): The Great Temple and the Palace of Yeha are examples of original and artistic craftsmanship of high quality and historical importance, traceable in the stonemason techniques, construction and the enormous labor and logistics required for the procurement of building materials. This creative achievement of the complex communities of Yeha of the first millennium BC is also visible in artifacts such as the bronze cauldron, stone and bronze inscriptions. The Great Temple is the earliest surviving structure in Sub-Saharn Africa. It is also one of the best preserved architectural remain in Africa. The Palace of Grat Be’al Geubri, the hitherto known largest timber-stone structure south of the Sahara and is one of the outstanding architectural achievements of the stratified communities of the Northern Horn.
Criterion (ii): The Great Temple and the Palace of Grat Be’al Geubri bear unique representations for the cultural exchanges between the populations of the Northern Horn and the Near East (South Arabia). Such cultural interactions/influences can be seen in architectural and technological similarities which are traceable in the layout and construction techniques of the Great Temple and the Palace of Be’al Geubri, in the acquisition of metal working and stone masonry but also in the use of common script, religion and cult practices. These cultural interchanges might have resulted with the emergence of the earliest complex societies in the Northern Horn in particular and in the Sub Saharan countries in general.
Criterion (iii): The site of Yeha is an exceptional testimony to the earliest highly centralized complex society in the Northern Horn as reflected in the Grand Temple, the Palace, archaeological remains and finds, embedded in the Ethiopian cultural landscape. It also preserves an archaeological evidence for the introduction of the working of metals in the Northern Horn for the first time. Accordingly, the site of Yeha as a whole represents a unique and exceptional testimony of the early cultural traditions and extinct cultures. Continuous archeological investigations at the site of Yeha has provided, and will continue to provide, data of great significance related to the cultural exchanges between the populations of the Middle East and the populations of the Northern Horn and the emergence and the development of complex civilizations in the Northern Horn.
Criterion (iv): The ensemble of monumental buildings and the rock tombs illustrates a significant cultural development of the first complex society in the early first millennium BC in the Northern Horn which was later transmitted into the Aksumite Kingdom that shaped the present cultural landscape of the World Heritage Site of Aksum and its surroundings. It represents a significant stage in human history such as the introduction of the working of metals, complex architectures and writing and provides the first evidence for the formation of a highly centralized state as it can be understood from the architecture of palace of Yeha. The Palace of Grat Be’al Geubri can be considered as a model for the Aksumite buildings types of the first millennium AD. Thus, the Palace of Be’al Geubri was the residence of first leaders of the Ethiopian state and was also the first capital of the Ethiopian State.
Statements of authenticity and/or integrity
The conditions of integrity of the site are met due to the existence of all its attributes that represent significant features of the highly centralized complex society that flourished at Yeha during the first millennium BC. The temple, the palace and the tombs are found in relatively good state of preservation to acquire all the necessary archaeological data to reconstruct the history of the site. The integrity of the buildings is compared with other structures of their kind in the view of their destruction by fire and decays over almost three thousand years are especially intact.
The monuments of Yeha have been subject to different restoration, consolidation and/or conservation measures, but the authenticity has not been affected. The interventions do not modify the attributes representing the wholeness and intactness since every alteration on each monument still reveals the original structure or is removable. They were undertaken to protect the buildings from destruction or further decay, or to highlight the original fabric supporting the interpretation of the properties.
Different structures have been preserved in various stages of preservation at the site of Yeha. The wooden structures of the monumental buildings were burnt almost completely in ancient times, but their existence and locations could be reconstructed through scientific architectural investigations. Chronological authenticity could be proven by various 14-C analyses of the buildings. The stone building material is still in its original fabric and was even part of scientific investigations authenticating its origin as well as the structural composition and age.
The Great Temple is closely integrated with the function of the traditional Ethiopian- Orthodox Church, reflecting an authentic example of harmonious coexistence between contemporary livelihood and the archaeological remains. The villages with its traditional Tigriyian vernacular buildings, created with an utmost use of local material, are partially preserved without any disturbances or present-day changes. Some of them could be preserved in order to illustrate traditional vernacular building examples, because they will not probably exist much longer.
The integrity and authenticity of the shaft rock cut tombs of Da’ero Mikael and Abiy Addi are intact and well preserved for future research and to be utilized for sustainable economic benefit of the local communities.
Comparison with other similar properties
There are different archaeological and historical sites elsewhere that are related to the Temple of Yeha.
The significance of the site of Yeha with its Great Temple, the Palace of Grat Be’al Geubri and the rock cut tombs together with the continued history of the property embedded in its stunning landscape, shows a variety and combination of different characteristics. Therefore, the comparative analysis and a verification of the site’s outstanding universal value are conducted to other sites by its representative buildings, its stage of preservation, historic continuity and surrounding landscapes.
In Worldwide context, monumental structures, sanctuaries and temples devoted to different deities are features of early civilization’s architecture in many parts of the world. On a broader scale, comparable sanctuaries are especially common in the Mediterranean during the first millennium BC. There are various heritage sites already accepted by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee of outstanding universal significance representing characteristics of religious or cultic centers with monumental and archaeological structures including the demonstration of important cultural exchanges in art and cultural transfer. Examples of such transfer include for instance the Archaeological Site of Marib in Yemen, which has been the capital of the Kingdom of Saba since the 8th century BC. The site, situated in an oasis, includes significant palaces and temples of the Sabaean rulers as well as an ancient settlement and water management systems. It is located approximately 120 kilometers (75 miles) east of Yemen’s modern capital. Unfortunately, it is not included to the World Heritage list.
The second comparable site is the archaeological site of Agrigento. Founded as a Greek colony in the 6th century B.C., it became one of the leading cities in the Mediterranean World. Selected excavated areas shed light on the later Hellenistic and Roman town and the burial practices of early Christian inhabitants. The archaeological area of Agrigento, the Valley of the Temples, is on the southern coast of Sicily and covers the vast territory of the ancient polis, from the Rupe Atenea to the acropolis of the original ancient city, as well as to the sacred hill on which stand the main Doric temples and up to the extramural necropolis.
The last site to be compared is the site of Meqaber Ga’ewa located 90 km to the south west of the site of Yeha. It was discovered in 2009 and dates to the 8th to 6th century BC resemble the early religious architecture of Yeha. This site shows the association between African and Arabian cultures and provides further insights into the political, economic and religious organization of the earliest complex societies of Yeha. As with the Great Temple in Yeha, the sanctuary is situated in a prominent place surrounded by plains of a limestone plateau. The plan of the Temple of Meqaber Ga’ewa is similar with the Architecture of that of Yeha such as the western orientation, rectangular and a symmetrically axially aligned ground plan with altar and sanctuary. However, the construction technique of the walls shows differences. In contrast to the Great Temple in Yeha, where limestone ashlars of the walls are perfectly dressed and executed with a thickness up to 100 cm, the walls of the Almaqah Temple in Meqaber Gaʿewa were built with similar to the Tigray traditional house constructions with irregularly chopped boulders fixed with clay mortar covered by earthen plaster. There are further differences in dimension and monumentality: Whilst the temple in Meqaber Ga'ewa has a rectangular shape with 13x9 m in its ground plan, the Great Temple has a dimension of 19x15 m which more larger than Meqaber Ga’ewa.
The ancient name of Yeha is mentioned for the first time on a libation altar with Sabaean inscription of the Almaqah Temple in Meqaber Gaʿewa. Furthermore, the well preserved libation altar gives reference to Yeha by representing a miniature version or model of the Great Temple in Yeha. It could be shown that the proportions of the altar with a representation of steps, pillar-hall and dentils frieze coincide with those of the Great Temple. In general, the archaeological remains found at Almaqah Temple in Meqaber Gaʿewa such as a female statue and the votive offerings, demonstrates the convergence of local and South Arabian cultural traditions of the first millennium BC.