The Sabaean Temple of Almaqah in Addi Akaweh (Tigray), Ethiopia

Dr Pawel Wolf gave the MBI Al Jaber Public Lecture at the British Museum this year as part of the annual Seminar for Arabia Studies. The lecture was entitled 'Colonisation or Culture Transfer? The Almaqah temple of Wuqro (Tigray) sheds new light on Ethio-Sabaean culture contacts in the Northern Horn of Africa' and gave an insight into the fascinating work of the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) over the past few seasons.

Addi Akaweh, 2000 m above sea level, is in a region of Tigray which has not yet been explored for archaeological material.  In the north of the Abyssinian highlands, the region is about 50 km north of the provincial capital of Mekelle, and seems to have been of importance due to its proximity to the ancient trade routes southeast of the main ancient centres of Axum and Yeha.

The temple of the Sabaean God Almaqah  is one of the main archaeological discoveries of the area, though there are signs of an ancient settlement nearby and some building believed to have a sacred use at nearby Ziban Adi. They belong to a settlement area of the 1st millennium BC, a period of crucial social development in the Abyssinian highlands.

Since the Neolithic period, the Abyssinian highlands were part of a far-flung network of exchange relationships between North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, and both African and South Arabian cultural components can be seen in its development. South Arabian inscriptions, temples and sculptures from the early 1st millennium BC, have been found at Yeha and Hawlti.

Various models of social development have been applied to explain the strong South Arabian presence such as colonization or economic and cultural relations. More research and work needs to be carried out before the contacts can be properly understood.  

The primary objective of the work of the DAI in Addi Akaweh is to comprehensively record and explore the archaeological material to shed light on the local cultural transformation in the context of regional contacts. Intercultural contacts and external relations with neighbouring cultural areas such as South Arabia, the Nile Valley and the south are still unexplored, and need to be investigated cross-regionally.

The Almaqah temple offers the ideal opportunity for the study of specific religious cultural components. The reconstruction of spatial concepts, ritual procedures and votive practices sheds light on the sacral-political space of the regional elite.  The temple was built in the 8th to 6th centuries BC on the ruins of an earlier building and continued in use with several modifications to probably the 3rd century BC.  It resembles the early South Arabian religious buildings in form and is built from local stone. Some of its most important features are a betyl made from naturally rounded boulders and perfectly preserved and libation altar donated by a hitherto unknown king named W'RN. His dedicatory inscription proves the ancient name of Yeha for the first time and demonstrates its importance as a national religious and political centre.  It also shows that elements of royal elite cultural and ideological traditions of South Arabia and the African region are used together. C14 dating confirmed the Ethiopian Sabaean inscriptions to date to the 7th century BC.
Photo: DAI, Pawel Wolf 
Votive offerings such as incense burners and the statue of a seated woman shed light on the cult practices of the elite and the "non-elite" are represented by various votive offerings. Archaeometry studies show that some of the come from other geographic areas of the Abyssinian highlands. Ceramics and miniature vessels have parallels in northern Tigray and Eritrea (for example the Ancient Ona culture). Individual vessel shapes and objects are also known from the elite tombs at Yeha and South Arabia.

So the contacts and cultural interchange are well-evidenced, but the social model to explain the contact is still unclear. Masons’ marks on the beautiful and well preserved libation altar show the local stone to have been worked by a South Arabian craftsman. What role did the Sabaeans play in the Abyssinian highlands at the beginning of the first millennium BC?  Surely this was connected to the incense trade and the all-important trade routes across the desert. It is to be hoped that new research and the continuing efforts of the joint Ethiopian-German team will shed light on this fascinating ‘cultural transfer’.


  1. I viisted Pawel Wolf yesterday at Adi Kaweh. This site was one of two from where stone incense burners were discovered in the 1960's and removed to the church on the hill above. Both incense burners were inscribed in Sabaean and stated that the area had been ruled (ca.2800 years ago)by four kings of Sheba/ Sabaea, three of whom ruled jointly with queens of Sheba over a mixed population of "red" Shebans and "black" Hebrew.

    Dr Bernard Leeman
    30 October 2012

  2. I like your post. It is very helpful and informative. Thank you so much for writing such a good post.

  3. Found this today and I was so excited! I had written on this earlier and suspected that there were both red and black Nubians among the peoples of Sheba and Dedan.

  4. You won't get a full picture until you include in the research the indigenous population of Irob, Saho & Afar.

    Ona is a title still used in Irob and Saho, a lot of names of the places where the earliest pre-axumite remains are being discovered are Saho names, though now dominated by Tigrigna speakers.
    For example the meaning of the following places in Saho:
    Keskese ( real sound is qesqes'ay) = slow down
    Matara = catch up/follow
    Wakarida = Foxhole/cave
    Golomekada (Golo-Makada) = Golo= valley/depression, Makada = grassy area
    --- Many more:
    Damo (Dayamo) = top of the stone
    Soloda (sole da) = standing stone
    Adwa = Mollar looking

    It is known fact that Saho people dominated this region, albeit their diminished presence today.


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