Yeha is considered the birthplace of Ethiopia’s earliest known civilisation nearly three millennia ago. Many features here, such as the immense, windowless, sandstone walls of the so-called Great Temple, are identical to those found in temples in Saba, Yemen and debate continues among scholars as to whether it was founded by Sabaean settlers from Arabia or by Ethiopians influenced by Sabaean ideas. The current thinking is that it was created by a mix of the two groups.
Now in the midst of restoration, the ruins are impressive for their sheer age as well as their stunning construction. The 7th-century-BC Great Temple’s limestone building blocks, measuring up to 3m in length, are perfectly dressed and fitted together without a trace of mortar. The whole temple is a grid of perfect lines and geometry.
Just northeast, behind a little restaurant that has some photos of the site from 1906 on its walls, are the remains of Grat Be’al Gebri, a monumental structure where the oldest sections date to the 8th century BC. Perhaps once a palace, it measured 2500 sq metres and it’s distinguished for its unusual, square-sectioned, monolithic pillars (which could have been taller than the tallest known in South Arabia at the Temple of the Moon in Ma’rib in Yemen). Important rock-hewn tombs have also been found in the vicinity.
Next to the temple is the new Church of Abuna Aftse, which was built in the 1940s over the 6th-century-AD original. Incorporated into its walls are stones removed from the temple, and in the west wall there are reliefs of ibexes, a sacred animal of southern Arabia. Entry is not allowed to tourists. The tiny museum contains a collection of beautifully incised ancient Sabaean inscriptions believed to originate from the temple, as well as some similarly ancient pottery plus the usual church paraphernalia.
Guides are compulsory, although if you insist you may be allowed to wander around alone. One guide we recommend is Hawaz – it's worth ringing ahead to make sure he's free.
The last minibus back to Adwa leaves the village at about 4pm.