Ancient ‘Great Temple’ in Ethiopia constructed by Sabaeans, now restored by antiquities departments

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Yeha, a town in the northern Tigray Region of Ethiopia, boasts a range of historical credentials, including being the capital of the kingdom of D’mt, from 10th-5th century BC. And during this epoch, immigrants from Yemen known as the Sabaeans (with their realm being controversially identified with the biblical land of Sheba) erected what is now known as the Great Temple of Yeha, circa 7th century BC. Designed in its characteristic ancient South Arabian style, the 46-ft high sacral structure with its immaculate level foundation withstood the rigors of time in spite of being heavily damaged by a fire in antiquity. And now after years of possibility of a collapse, a collaborative effort from DAI’s (German Archaeological Institute) Sanaa branch of the Orient Department and the Ethiopian Antiquities Authority has resulted in the timely restoration of the Great Temple of Yeha.

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Accompanying the ongoing analysis of the site since 2009, the restorative works entailed the installation of stainless steel framework and the reinforcement of the masonry sections. Quite incredibly, the project also took the vernacular route, with researchers working in cooperation with the local population, in a bid to protect and maintain the rich native cultural identity symbolized by the 2,700-year old temple – one of the most significant ancient religious buildings in East Africa.

Now historically, the Great Temple of Yeha was dedicated to Almaqah (or Al-muqh), the supreme Sabaan god who also held a special place in the pantheon of the kingdom of D’mt. According to German Archaeological Institute –

The building material [of the temple] was not the local sandstone, but carefully polished snow-white limestone, which had to be obtained from the quarries around Wuqro about 80 km to the east. The sanctuary was not only seen as a cultic but also as a power-political statement of the community of Di’amat [Dʿmt], already developed in the early 1st millennium BC in the Ethiopian highlands.

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The Great Temple on the right side, within a monastery complex.

Interestingly enough, while the Great Temple was damaged by a fire (possibly) circa 5th century BC, the construction of a church in 6th century AD partially protected the structure of the building from complete destruction. The newer building was also reinforced at its base by the aforementioned sturdy level foundation originally installed by the resourceful Sabaeans. In essence, it was the ‘collaborative’ effort borne by fortuitous coincidences and nifty engineering that had preserved the ancient temple throughout the millennia. The German Archaeological Institute concluded –

With the completion of the extensive restoration work and the opening ceremony, this historically important monument can once again be made accessible to tourism. The project is an excellent example of the successful Ethiopian-German cooperation in the field of cultural preservation and the sustainable tourism development of this region. It also has a pilot character for further cultural preservation projects in this region.

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Source: German Archaeological Institute (Press Release) / Images Copyright: DAI, Orient-Abteilung

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