City-State of Yeha Flourishes in the Ethiopian Highlands Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Yeha, an ancient city and the center of the earliest kingdom in Ethiopia, influenced subsequent cultural and political developments in that region.

Summary of Event

The northern highlands of Ethiopia, including present-day Eritrea, with its temperate climate, summer rains, and fertile soil, are believed to be one of the earliest centers of agrarian development and large-scale settlements. The noted Russian plant geneticist, Nikolay Vavilov, who investigated Ethiopian crops, concluded that the cultivation of barley and other cereals, such as teff (Eragrostis abyssinica) and noug (Guizotia abyssinica), developed autonomously in Ethiopia quite early in the Neolithic revolution.

Trade between Egypt and this region of the Horn of Africa (referred to by the Egyptians as the land of Punt) is known to have existed as far back as the Fifth Dynasty in the middle of the third millennium b.c.e. This Egyptian contact continued down to the time of Ramses III around 1200 b.c.e. Rodolfo Fattovich, who has studied the history of ancient urbanization in northeast Africa, suggests that traders from the plateau of eastern Tigray played an important role as intermediaries between the hinterland and the coast. The material culture dating back at least to the early first millennium b.c.e. also indicates that there existed a sustained commercial interaction between the communities of northern Ethiopia bordering the Red Sea and those on the South Arabian side. Evidence indicates that more complex societies that participated in long-distance trade evolved among the mixture of Cushitic and Semitic-speaking peoples that inhabited the plateau of Tigray and the Eritrean highlands by the beginning of the first millennium b.c.e.

Although a number of petty political principalities may have appeared in the region as early as the beginning of the second millennium b.c.e., the first recorded state in Ethiopian history dates to around the fifth century b.c.e. with the rise of Yeha (in western Tigray) as a vigorous city-state. In due time, Yeha absorbed the surrounding chiefdoms and became the center of what is known as the kingdom of Da’amat. The kingdom covered parts of Tigray and what is now Eritrea, extending to Adulis on the Red Sea coast. The rulers of Da’amat called themselves mukarribs (a title that was also used by the Sabaean states in South Arabia) and may have combined the function of chief priest and ruler.

Linguistic, monumental, and epigraphic evidence points to a strong South Arabian (particularly Sabaean) influence in Yeha during this time. Contacts between the two sides of the Red Sea were frequent. Available evidence suggests that a steady trickle of South Arabians (possibly for commercial and hunting purposes) penetrated into the interior and fused with the Cushitic (mostly Agaw) peoples of northern Ethiopia.

First highlighted by a German archaeological expedition at the beginning of the twentieth century, the ancient city of Yeha has yielded a trove of artifacts that have proved useful in reconstructing the architectural, linguistic, religious, and cultural features of this ancient kingdom. Although extensive excavation of the site has not yet been undertaken, archaeologists have uncovered large numbers of fragments of Sabaean (one of the Semitic languages) inscriptions that mention names of tribes and a mix of local deities and South Arabian gods. Although not conclusively established, there is a general agreement that the oldest Sabaean inscription discovered in Yeha dates to the fifth century b.c.e.

Also found in Yeha is the oldest known standing monument in Ethiopia. This imposing rectangular temple (which has lost its roof and upper stories) is about 60 feet (18 meters) in length, 48 feet (14.5 meters) wide, and 50 feet (15 meters) in height. It stands on a hill overlooking the surrounding area. The temple may have been dedicated to Almuqah, the South Arabian god of the moon. Palace ruins, royal cemeteries, elite residences, pottery, and tools and relics found in the graves near the temple attest to the flourishing of an urban community that drew its prosperity from trade and the rich agricultural resources of the surrounding areas.


The embryonic Ethiopian state that developed with its center at Yeha collapsed by the end of the first millennium b.c.e., but it had considerable influence on its successor state, Aksum (first century c.e.). The meshing of Semitic and Cushitic cultures evidenced in fifth century b.c.e. Yeha became the most prominent feature of Ethiopian society. The evolution of a new Ethiopic script and language called Ge’ez by the first century c.e. is testimony to the continuing fusion of the Semitic and Cushitic elements and its spread over wider areas of northern and central Ethiopia.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anfray, F. “Yeha, berceau d’une civilization.” Archeologia 64 (1973). Prominent arachaeologist Anfray, who has done extensive work on ancient sites in northern Ethiopia, discusses Yeha. In French.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fattovich, Rodolfo. “Pre-Aksumite Civilization of Ethiopia: A Provisional Review.” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 7 (1977). An outline of the major political and commercial centers that grew in northern Ethiopia before the rise of Aksum in the first century c.e.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fattovich, Rodolfo. “Remarks on the Pre-Aksumite Period in Northern Ethiopia.” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 23 (1990). This work incorporates some of the latest findings on the pre-Aksumite period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Littman, Enno, Daniel Krenker, and Theodore von Lüpke. Der deutschen Aksum Expedition I-IV. Berlin: Reimer Verlong, 1913. An account of the first German expedition that carried out extensive excavations in northern Ethiopia, including at Yeha. In German.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Save-Soderbergh, T. The Navy of the Eighteenth Egyptian Dynasty. Uppsala, Sweden: A. B. Lundequistska Bokhandeln, 1946. Provides a fairly extensive account of ancient contacts between Egypt and the Horn of Africa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sergew Hable Sellassie. Ancient and Medieval Ethiopian History to 1270. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: United Printers, 1972. Covers the most important highlights of Ethiopian history from the earliest times to the medieval period with detailed reproductions of the ancient Sabaean, Greek, and Geez inscriptions and Aksumite coins.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vavilov, Nikolay. “The Problem of the Origin of the World’s Agriculture in the Light of the Latest Investigations.” In Science at the Crossroads. London: Frank Cass, 1931. An exploration of the major centers of the Neolithic revolution by a noted Russian plant geneticist.
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Categories: History