HERITAGES WITH IN 100 KM RADIUS FROM AKSUM IN VISITING SEQUENCE
Yeha: The Ancient Settlement in the Abyssinian Highlands of Tigrai
This spectacular archaeological complex is located about 54km northeast of Aksum. It can be easily reached by car via the completely asphalted highway linking Aksum to Adigrat through the magnificent scenery of the Adwa Mountains. Keep following the road beyond Adwa until the signboard indicating Yeha appears on the left side of the road, approximately 49km from Aksum. Then turn left onto the unpaved track and follow it about 5km until it reaches the square at the center of the village. The famous temple and Abba Aftse Church are located on the small round hill above the village square.
The temple at Yeha constitutes as the center of the civilization that bloomed in Ethiopia’s northern highlands millennia ago. Yeha was a center of the Di’amat kingdom, a pre–Aksumite civilization that flourished eight to nine centuries before the birth of Christ. One of the remains of this great civilization is the Temple of Yeha - the oldest standing structure in sub-Saharan Africa. It is a magnificent structure remarkable for, among other things, its structural strength, geometrical perfection and architectural beauty.
Previous studies indicated that the origin of Yeha’s civilization was southern Arabia, a mirroring of the civilization that flourished particularly in Yemen. However, this view, it turns out, was sheer conjecture. Recent findings confirm that the tailwind of civilization, in fact, blew the other way around.
After the Advent of Christianity, Abune Aftse, one of the Nine Saints, built his monastery next the ancient temple.
Over the centuries, Yeha has attracted several international travelers. The first known foreign traveler who visited Yeha was the 16th century traveler Francisco Álvares. Famous travelers like the Scot James Bruce and the Brit Henry Salt have visited Yeha in the 18th and 19th centuries respectively.
The treasures of the church of Abune Aftse are kept on the upper floor of a two-storey building resembling a traditional house, located north of the church. Leather bible pouches, crowns, crucifixes, stone inscriptions and illustrated manuscripts are displayed in this small museum.
Grat Be’al Gibri: The Monumental Building in Yeha
This edifice was built on a high podium with a monumental portico reached by a roughly built stepped structure. Pieces of dressed stone from this structure can be found throughout the building, suggesting that the rubble masonry would have been finished with dressed ashlar. Some of the huge monolithic sandstone pillars remain in their original location, pointing to a building that matched the temple in scale and quality of workmanship. The German Archaeological Institute has started new excavations on the building, which can be dated between 8th and 9th century BC.
Mountains of Adwa: Mountains in Conference
Not far from Adwa, numerous mountains with a typical conical shape - known as the Adwa Mountains due to their proximity to the town of Adwa - fill the whole terrain and present an amazing topography when observed from a distance. In addition, the strategic position and the commanding views that the mountains provide made it possible in the past for the locals to spot and prevent the advance of any potential security encroachment. Stretched north-south over hundreds of kilometers, the Mountains of Adwa chain seems – for the locals – to exist to provide a natural protection to the Ark and the holy city of Aksum, hence being also known as Hatsure Tsion, the Fences of Zion.
The Battle of Adwa
In these mountain ranges lies the site of the Battle of Adwa, where the Ethiopians won a tremendous victory over a colonial European army. Tigrai has always been a battle field where many wars were fought and much blood spilled in defending the region. The history of Adwa and its surroundings mark an important phase in world history. The Battle of Adwa culminated in the decisive defeat of the invading Italian army in 1896. The Ethiopians were led by their Emperor Menelik, Empress Taitu, the War Minister and many notable Rases (high military generals) and their ranking commanders (all with extensive experience in internal campaigns and some also having fought in battles against external invaders). There were also large numbers of Ethiopian camp followers. The Italian colonial army was commanded by General Baratieri, the governor of the then Italian colony of Eritrea, and four other generals under him who led the different attacking wings. The Ethiopia army was fighting a just war in defence of their independent motherland while the Italians were colonial aggressors attacking to gain a relatively rich colony in the Horn of Africa.
In the world famous Battle of Adwa, the comparatively poorly-equipped Ethiopians triumphed over the well-armed Italian colonizers. It was the first ever victory of a black amateur army over a white professional army.
Abba Gerimma Monastery
One of the Nine Saints settled on the southern fringe of the Adwa mountain chains, now known as the Abba Gerima Monastery. To be precise, it is located at about eight km south-east of the town of Adwa. The monastery houses the oldest known Ethiopian manuscript, a vellum gospel book, carbon dated to the Late Aksumite period (6th century). The gospel is bound in two volumes, although it seems that there were originally three books, each comprising the four gospels and a set of canon tables. They are illustrated with portraits of the evangelists, standing and holding books in a pose seen later at the church of Golgotha at Lalibela. The text is in Ge’ez, although there are clear Syrian and Armenian influences in the pictorial and decorative elements, some of which may have had a stylistic influence on the detailing of the Ethiopian churches.
Apart from being one of the oldest places of christian worship in the country, the monastry is also famous for being the resting place of the body of the most famous of all African Generals, Ras Alula Aba Nega.
Debre Damo - Home of the Hermits
The monastery of Debre Damo is noted for its extraordinary location on the crown of an Imba (Table Mountain) 600m by 180m at its widest part. It is a natural fortress, with 50m high cliffs lining most of the perimeter except for a short portion at the northeast end which provides the only point of access to the mountain monastery. Access is provided to men only, as female visitors are not allowed to the church, by climbing or being hoisted on a 15m plaited leather rope, the “Jende”, which is hanging dawn from the top of the cliff. The church is dedicated to its founder, Abune Aregawi (Zemikael), one of the ‘nine saints’ who taught gospel in the country in the 6th century. According to local tradition, Abune Aregawi is believed to have been taken to the top of the Imba with help of a serpent which was commanded to do so by God. Today the ’Jende’ symbolizes this miraculous serpent. One can use the natural footholds to climb the cliff. Inexperienced visitors need to tie their waists with the additional rope provided by the church and climb up the rough cliff.
On top of the Imba are two churches. The main one, 20m deep and 9m wide, was constructed under the auspices of Emperor Gebre Meskel, the Aksumite Ethiopian king who reigned in the 6th century. It is believed to have been built on the very site where the serpent had safely dropped the founder. Described by Richard Pankhurst as “a veritable jewel of ancient Ethiopian architecture”, the church is built following an Aksumite style of construction: layers of stone alternated with layers of wood. The walls are constructed of stones and strengthened with longitudinal beams, which are themselves fixed to the walls with projecting woods otherwise known as “monkey heads”. The walls of the church show resemblance to the decorative styles displayed on the obelisks of Aksum. The monolithic pillars, the beams, the wooden doors, and windows depict Aksumite architecture.
On the ceiling of the sanctuary one can observe wooden carvings of different animals such as cattle, elephants, water birds, etc. Ancient stone pillars can also be seen in the sanctuary and the Holy of Holies. In spite of repeated restorations over the centuries, the original church at Debre Damo still maintains the glamour and grace of the original church.
Famous for its superior Christian scholarship, difficult location and ecclesiastical treasures, the monastery of Debre Damo stands out as a site of unvarnished, authentic monastic life. Young monks from all corners of the country flock to Debre Damo in pursuit of Christian learning. Even today, the monastery of Debre Damo is viewed as the Harvard of Christian scholarship in Ethiopia.
Indeed, Debre Damo has become synonymous with monasticism in Ethiopia. According to the renowned scholar of Ethiopian history, Richard Pankhurst, Debre Damo “takes today’s traveler into a past age and leaves him with a deeper understanding of Ethiopia’s age–old and unique civilization than mere words can give. “
Debre Damo is also rich in religious and royal treasures of national significance. Ancient coins that date back to as early as the 1st and 3rd century AD, which reveal Ethiopia’s trade relations with India and Egypt, were discovered in Debre Damo.
Enda Mariam Wukro
This church lies 7km northwest of the town of Nebelet in central Tigrai, and northeast of the Gheralta Cluster of rock-hewn churches. The church is not fully separated from the rock face, and only the southern façade is visible from the exterior. The interior has richly decorated walls and ceilings. There are three doors, two of them leading into nave and the third leading to the priests’ chamber, called Kine Mahlet, measuring 9.2m deep, 4.4m wide and 5.2m high.
This chamber is highly decorated with stone bas-reliefs and relatively recent paintings. The western and southern parts of the ceiling have large, carved Greek crosses, and the northern and the central part of ceiling have geometrically perfect domes. The ceiling is supported on two free-standing pillars. The remarkable feature of the church is that the pillars are connected by double arches, and have no central pillars. A wooden door leads to the inner altar. The interior measures 10m x 9m x 9m.
Four free–standing pillars with pilaster capitals on top, plus another 10 wall-pillars support the ceiling. On the western side of the holy of holies, one can see a window–like opening in Aksumite style, very much reminiscent of the windows of the Lalibela churches. In fact, in many respects, the church is similar to those churches of Lalibala and Debre Damo as well. According to David Buxton, one of the noted authorities of the rock-hewn churches of Tigrai, Enda Mariam Wukro “shows clear kinship with the built church of Debre Damo”. He further states that the church has “some important” kinship with Lalibela churches – Mariam, Amanuel and Abba Libanos specifically. Another chapel, accessible by a wooden ladder, houses the tabot of St. George. Enda Mariam Wukro is a very complex and magnificent church. According to scholar Ruth Plant, it is “without doubt a great example of Tigre architecture”.