Yeha, in the administrative region of Tigrai, was possibly Ethiopia’s oldest major settlement. An hour-a-half’s drive from the ancient city of Axum, with at least one obligatory photo stop on the journey, it is little more than five kilometers from the modern commercial centre of Adwa. Yeha, which is set amid imposing mountain scenery, is well worth visiting. It is the site of the country’s most ancient temple, a remarkable huge stone structure, and a fine and richly endowed Ethiopian church of more modern times. The ancient city of Yeha was first described in the early 16th century by the intrepid Portuguese traveler Francisco Alvares, who was struck, like so many foreign visitors after him, by the age-old temple. He described it as ‘a very large and handsome tower, both for its height and the good workmanship of its walls’.
It had, he adds, ‘the look of a regal building, all of well-hewn stone, and was surrounded by good houses, which match well with it, and good walls and terraces above, like the residences of Great Lords’.
The good houses, ‘like the residence of Great Lords’, have long since disappeared, but the ‘very large and handsome tower’, in fact all that remains of a rectangular temple dating back to pre-Christianity times, is still standing, more or less perhaps as Alvares saw it almost half a millennium ago.
This fine old building, according to the 19th-century German scholar Heinrich Muller, probably dates back to about 700 or 800 years before the birth of Christ. The temple stands on a small hill, at the foot of a nearby mountain, with a reasonably sized village of traditional Tigray-style houses nearby. The temple, which is reminiscent of those in Yemen and other parts of south Arabia, consists of large smoothly polished stone blocks, some as much as 300 centimetres long, neatly placed one above or beside another, without any apparent use of mortar. The roof and the west wall are both missing, but several square holes in the remaining walls toward the east of the structure indicate where partitions, probably of wood, once stood.