Yeha - Temple of the Moon

Yeha, the first African capitol, the seat of Da'amat (D'mt) Kingdom, houses The Temple of the Moon, the oldest standing structure in Ethiopia. There are series of excavations undergoing in and around Yeha, revealing immense historic records. Yeah is now a small village in central Tigrai.

Carbon dated to the 8th Century BC, and some sources to be confirmed yet to the 13th century BC, Temple of Yeha, known also as The Temple of the Moon, is located about 30 Km Northeast of Adwa town (some 54 km Northeast of Axum). The temple to the god Ilmuqah is still standing. Al-maqah or Al-muqh (Sabaean: 𐩱𐩡𐩣𐩤𐩠‎) was the moon God (and hence the temple of the moon) of the ancient kingdoms of Yemeni, Dʿmt and Aksum.

Previous researchers attributed the selection of the site to the ‘exceptional fertility of the soil in the well-watered broad valleys of the area’. The good preservation of the Temple has also been attributed to its subsequent conversion into a Christian church. However, geoenvironmental studies in the area suggest that the selection of the site is attributed more to the strategic location of the site, being surrounded by mountain edifices. The soils are not exceptionally fertile nor are the valleys exceptionally broad. The thin residual soils developed on colluvial deposits. These studies further argues that the good preservation of the main wall of the Yeha Temple is mainly attributed to the durability of the sandstone used for its construction and the technique they were built with.

Yeha is also the location of an Ethiopian Orthodox monastery, founded according to tradition by Abba Haftse, one of the Nine Saints. In his account of Ethiopia, Francisco Álvares mentions visiting this town in 1520 (which he called “Abbafaçem”), 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 current structure, which exhibits Aksumite architectural features, was built between 1948 and 1949.)

Archaeological Findings

The ancient history of Ethiopia can be traced back to around the eighth century BC when some sort of contact, apparently quite close, seems to have been maintained between Ethiopia and South Arabia (Munro-Hay, 1991). Archaeological excavations in many places in Ethiopia and Eritrea have unearthed many religious or funerary installations with strong similarities to those in South Arabia, which could be traced back to this Era (Munro-Hay, 1991; Phillipson, 1998). Among such sites, the notable ones are Hawelti-Melazo, about 15 Km south of Axum (de Contenson, 1961), and the temple, related buildings and tombs at Yeha, about 30 Km northeast of Adwa (Anfray, 1973). In general some ninety sites have been attributed to this pre-Aksumite period (Fattovich, 1989).

According to Munro-Hay (1991), it seems that the pre-Aksumite society on the Tigrai plateau, centred in the Aksum/Yeha region but extending further north and south had achieved state level during the sixth or fifth century BC (Phillipson, 1998), and that the major entity or state/kingdom came to be called D`MT (Daamat). The ruins of the temple and the related buildings and graves at Yeha are considered to be the evidences of this kingdom.

The selection of the Yeha site has been attributed by many to the exceptional fertility of the soils in the broad valleys and the good preservation of the Temple to the subsequent conversion of the latter to a Christian church (e.g. Phillipson, 1998). This paper presents results of a geological investigation of the Yeha site and the Temple which indicate that the selection is rather related to the strategic importance of the site rather than the broadness or exceptional fertility of the site.

The earliest occupation at Yeha dates to the first millennium BC, with a Great Temple, a “palace” (perhaps an elite residence) at Grat Be’al Gebri, and the cemetery at Daro Mikael with shaft-tombs.

Three artifacts scatters probably representing residential settlements have been identified within a few kilometers of the main site.

  •  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.

Monuments in Yeha

The Temple of Yeha is located some 30 km northeast of the town of Adwa, accessed by an all-weather dirt road that branches from the main Adigrat-Adwa road and heads north for about 5 km (Fig. 1). Though Yeha is famous for the remarkable monument known as the Temple of the Moon, there are other remains of archaeological importance located in proximity to the site of the Temple.

Archaeological investigations by the Deutsche Axum-Expedition in 1906 and later by Francis Anfray in the early 1970s in a locality called Grat Beal Gebri, located some 200 m northeast of the site of the Temple, unearthed a series of massive squaresectioned monolithic pillars which, due to lack of appropriate conservation after their excavation, are now badly deteriorated (Phillipson, 1998). Francis Anfray also unearthed a series of rock-cut graves, one of which may have belonged to one of the D’MT rulers (Fattovich, 1990), on the lower southwestern slopes of the outcrop on which the Temple stands. Vertical shafts lead to one or more tomb-chambers, the contents of which included abundant pottery, copper-alloy sickles and other tools, and an alabaster vessel (Phillipson, 1998).

Sources:

  1. The Temple of Yeha: Geo-Environmental Implications on its Site Selection and Preservation, Asfawossen Asrat.
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