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Les bâtisseurs sur les deux rives de la mer Rouge

Jean-François Breton

Chapter 2. Archaeological discoveries in South Arabia and in Ethiopia: A crossed history

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2.1. A short chronology of research in Ethiopia and South Arabia

  • 1 Krencker 1913.

1In Ethiopia, the first scientific archaeological investigation was undertaken in 1906-1907 by the German Deutsche Aksum-Expedition, directed ed by Enno Littmann, and benefiting from the help of the architects Daniel Krencker and Theodor von Lüpke1. En route to Axum, they studied the ancient sites of Adulis, Tokonda, Qohaito, Kaskase and Matarâ, whose remains are still partly visible today. In Axum, they drew and photographed numerous stelae, thrones, foundations of visible buildings, and architectural and ornamental elements. Then they partially cleared three buildings, which they named “Enda Mikâ’el”, “Τa’akha Maryâm” and “Enda’ Semôn”, bringing to light abundant collections of ceramic.

2The contribution of this mission is all the more significant today since the expansion of the modern city of Axum has now covered numerous ancient buildings. The types of buildings, their design and their architectural realization constitute the main corpus of our knowledge of Axumite architecture. Even today there is no publication that does not make reference to the work of the Deutsche Aksum-Expedition.

2.1.1. The late opening of Yemen to archaeology (fig. 2.1)

3Archaeological research did not begin in Yemen until well after World War I. The first digs were undertaken by Germans scientists, Carl Rathjens and Hermann von Wissmann, who cleared the small shrine of al-Huqqa, northwest of Sanaa, in 1928 (fig.2.2). The architectural layout of this temple, which is dated to the beginning years AD, already looks back on a long architectural tradition.

  • 2 Caton-Thompson 1944.

4Taking advantage of Britain’s dominant position in Aden, the British established an archaeological presence in the southern part of the country. In 1937-1938, a team directed by Gertrude Caton-Thompson opened up the temple of alHuraydha in Hadhramawt, which she dated to about the 5th cent. BC, as well as its necropolis and a nearby “farmstead”. She introduced controlled archaeological excavation techniques to Yemen and was also responsible for creating the first typology of South Arabian ceramics2.

5In 1950, the “American Foundation for the Study of Man” sent an expedition to excavate Tamna‘, the capital of the kingdom of Qatabân, its necropolis Hayd ibn ’Aqîl and the tell of Hajar ibn Humayd in wâdî Bayhân. In 1951, the mission moved to Mâ’rib where it remained for only a short while. More than two decades were to pass before digging resumed in Yemen.

  • 3 Breton-Arramond-Coque-Delhuille-Gentelle 1998.

6Some surveys were conducted in the early seventies in the surroundings of Sanaa, bringing to light a number of inscriptions and architectural elements. From 1977 on, French surveys extended to the Nihm highlands, north of Sanaa, and then down to the Jawf valley. It was only in 1974 that the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen Ministry of Culture entrusted to a French mission the excavation of Shahwa, the former capital of the kingdom of Hadhramawt. This mission, directed by J.-F. Breton, extended its researches step by step to Hadhramawt, to wâdî Markha and to wâdî Bayhân3. In 1980, another French mission, directed by Ch. Robin, began surveying the monuments of the Jawf valley, to the northwest of Mâ’rib. Other teams from Germany, Italy, Russia, and Yemen have since contributed to a spate of new archaeological discoveries in South Arabia.

  • 4 Munro-Hay 1989.
  • 5 Phillipson 2000.

7In Tigray (fig. 2.3) large-scale excavation was conducted in Axum by Dr. Neville Chittick (1972-1974)4, by R. Fattovich and K. Bard (1993-1995) and by D. W. Phillipson (1993-1996)5. Further excavations were undertaken in Yeha by I. Gerlach (from 2010), in Meqaber Ga’ewa by F. Wolf and U. Nowotnik (from 2009) and in Wakarida (from 2012) by I. Gajda.

2.2. From South Arabia to Yeha

8In 1963, when F. Anfray began to work in Yeha, he had no way of knowing about the monuments of the valley of Jawf, Barâqish, and Ma‘în except through photos and the descriptions of A. Fakhrî and of M. Tawfîq. But even this preliminary documentation could have been useful to allow some comparisons, had it been used.

9It was only in the eighties that the Jawf valley was opened up to archaeological research and the monuments of Ma‘în, Barâqish and as-Sawdâ’ began to be known. It is now very clear that the temple of Yeha has many similarities with the shrines of Ma‘în and of Barâqish (excavated between 1980 and 1982 by an Italian Archaeological Mission).

2.2.1. Yeha (fig. 2.4 and 2.5), Barâqish (fig. 2.6 and 2.7) and Ma‘în (fig. 2.8)

10Of similar dimensions (15.20 m by 18.90 m at Yeha; 9.15 m by 7.05 m at Ma‘în intra-muros Temple; 20 m by 14 m at Ma‘în extra-muros Temple; and 12 m by 11 m at Barâqish), these sanctuaries are well preserved all the way up to the top (14 m in Yeha, 3.70 m at Ma‘în intra-muros, and more than 6 m at Barâqish).

11Two temples have kept their stone roof (Barâqish and Ma‘în intra-muros Temple where the roof is almost completely preserved). On the contrary, the roof of Yeha Temple and of Ma‘în extra-muros Temple have vanished completely. Two temples have preserved their entrance propylon in good condition (Ma‘în extramuros Temple and Barâqish). The propylons of Yeha have disappeared, and the access to the intra-muros Temple of Ma‘în consists of a long side corridor. The design of these propylons, at least that of Ma‘în, could have served as a model for architectural comparison between Tigray and South Arabia, had they been used.

12The internal layout of their hypostyle room is similar: two rows of three pillars each, spaced 1.50 m apart at Ma‘în; four rows of three pillars each at Yeha Temple (fig. 2.4 and 2.5); four rows of four pillars each at Barâqish Temple (fig. 2.6); two rows of seven pillars each at Ma‘în extra-muros Temple. These series of pillars support stone architraves at Ma‘în temple (the majority of which are still in situ) and at Yeha Temple.

  • 6 Anfray 1997.

13In 1997, F. Anfray published the results of his excavation in Grat Beal Guebri/Yeha which he had undertaken from 1971 to 19736 (fig. 2.10). He had excavated a part of this vast building consisting in a monumental staircase leading to a platform supporting the entrance propylon made up of long horizontal bases bearing at their two ends the remains of monolithic pillars. Besides, he cleared a number of internal compartments belonging to the foundations. Had they been used, these could have provided sufficient elements both for an architectural reconstruction and for a dating (approx. 8th cent. BC).

  • 7 Breton, Darles, Robin & Swauger 1997.

14Even earlier, the mission of the “American Foundation for the Study of Man” had already cleared (in 1950-1951) the “Main building” (so-called Tamna‘ Temple 1 or TT1 at Tamna‘) in Yemen (fig. 2.9), the architectural elements of which resemble those of Grat Beal Guebri/Yeha, thus offering a major key to the synchronism of South Arabian-Ethiopian history. Indeed, the “Main building” (or TT1) consists of a high-rise platform with internal compartments, reached by a monumental staircase, and this platform supports an entrance system consisting of a propylon constituted by horizontal hases supporting monolithic pillars. Probably this building was erected around the 8th cent. BC7.

15Moreover, the charcoal remains of the wooden frames of the floor (or floors) were also brought to light at Tamna‘. Calcined by a violent fire, the beams of the frames had however left their hollow imprint in between the fillings of brick. These massifs of brick were cleared away in the first days of excavation, in February 1951, without any attempt at explanation. It is however likely that such beams enclosing a filling of brick belonged to the floors. Had a careful report of this beam-and-brick complex been made, it would have allowed archaeologists to propose some elements of reconstruction at Tamna‘, thereby also suggesting possibilities for the reconstruction of the Axumite buildings as well.

  • 8 Partly ignorant of South Arabian publications, D. W. Phillipson asserts: “A more precise dating of (...)

16Thus, even as early as 1973, the comparison between buildings would have made it possible to underline the similarities of dating (approximately 8th cent. BC), of design and of building techniques in the buildings of Yeha and Tamna‘8. A considerable amount of time would thereby have been saved in the understanding of Axumite architecture.

2.3. Building with stone pillars in Himyar and the Tigray Highlands

17At the time of the Deutsche Aksum-Expedition, D. Krencker found very numerous buildings consisting of a high-rise platform with internal compartments and with upper rooms supported by stone pillars (and not by wooden posts). These buildings, however, were not found at Axum itself, but at several sites north of Axum. The ancient site of Qohaito includes eight rectangular buildings, the rooms of whose ground floor show rows of stone pillars of square section (fig. 2.11 and 2.12). At the site of Tokonda, 4 km south of Adi Kayeh, at least three buildings (Ruins A, Β and C) show aligned rows of monolithic stone pillars (sometimes arranged in two rows) over a high-rise platform with internal compartments.

  • 9 Krencker 191 fig. 102.

18Krencker, who also recognized other similar stone buildings at Adulis, was able to draw up a synoptic picture of these types of pillars, their section, and details of their bases. He thereby highlighted one of the characteristics of Axumite architecture, the generalized use of stone pillars with capitals with flat strips, in variable-sized buildings. But he could not, for lack of excavation, compare the use of stone pillars with that of wood. He was able to establish some comparisons in Arabia with the site of al-‘Ula9, but could not go further.

  • 10 Rathjens 1957: 93-95, 123.

19As was already stated, the archaeological exploration of South Arabia was at that time still in its infancy. In 1927, then regularly from 1931, Carl Rathjens explored the neighborhood of Sanaa, discovering some buildings with monolithic pillars (at Sûq an-Na’âm, at Silâ’ (fig. 2.13), etc.) and isolated stone pillars with monolithic capitals10.

20All this should have (but did not) raise the question of the use of stone for pillars, which might have resulted in part from a critical deforestation coming from large-scale construction in wood. At Axum itself, this stone construction is hardly attested at that time in domestic building-at least to our knowledge-and it would be necessary to admit different techniques of stone construction in Axum and further north, in the region of Tokonda-Qohaito. It would be the same for Adulis, on the coast of the Red Sea, where the great scarcity of trees hardly permitted building in wood.

2.4. Architecture and decoration in Tigray and in South Arabia

21In the fifties and sixties the inventory of archaeological objects increased considerably, making it possible to sketch out the first contacts between South Arabia and Axum.

22In Yemen, in 1951, A. Fakhry published An Archaeological Journey to Yemen (March-May, 1947) in Cairo and M. Tawfîq published The monuments of Ma‘în (Yemen) (Études sud-arabiques: volume 1). In 1953, C. Rathjens published, in the volumes of Sabaeica (I, II and III), the results of the missions he had undertaken from 1931 till 1938, mainly around Sanaa. Even if most of these results were published very late, these data would have been useful to supply elements of comparison with Axumite architecture because most of the Himyar buildings on the Yemeni Highlands are dated roughly to the Axumite period, at least 1st or 2nd cent. AD, and sometimes even later. From 1958, the archaeologists of the American Foundation for the Study of Man published successively Archaeological Discoveries in South Arabia (1958) and later An Ancient South Arabian Necropolis, Objects from the Second Campaign (1951) in the Tamna‘ Cemetery. Many incense burners, alabaster or limestone heads, calcite-alabaster funerary heads, limestone face stelae, alabaster heads with inscribed base, etc. were unearthed.

23In Ethiopia, in the region of Axum, from 1956, the Section of Archaeology of the Imperial Government launched several excavation projects. Three excavation campaigns at Axum were undertaken from 1956 till 1959 on the “Field of Stelae”, and other excavations followed around Melazo, Gobo Chela, Enda Tcheqos, Mezaber, Haoulti, etc. which were regularly reported in the Annales d’Ethiopie.

24The ornamental recessed panels at Axum had already attracted the attention of Krencker, who did not fail to establish a comparison with one panel from Yemen kept at the Museum of Istanbul. Similar recessed panels were discovered little by little in Axumite territory, thus offering more than one point of comparison with South Arabia, but unfortunately none of them were found in situ. Scholars had to wait a long time to find these panels in situ in Yemen, in the retaining walls in the temple of Bar’ân in Mâ’rib and in the “royal palace” of Shabwa.

  • 11 De Contenson 2005.

25Limestone ornamental panels decorated with repeating rows of recesses are a common feature on building façades during the “archaic period” in South Arabia. In Ethiopia, similar slabs have been documented in Haoulti Melazo (by Contenson11) and in Enda Cherqos (by Leclant). The same decorative effect is replicated in miniature, for instance, on altars and incense burners (fig. 2.15).

  • 12 Rathjens 1937.
  • 13 Krencker 1913: 85.
  • 14 Breton 2011.

26Ibex friezes are common in South Arabia, but very few have been discovered in situ12 (fig. 2.14). Limestone slabs with double snakes have been discovered in Yeha, some already in 191313, others in 1998. They are very similar to slabs from Jawf temples (as-Sawdâ’, Ma‘în...)14. Slabs decorated with false headers (or dentils) are very common in South Arabia; limestone blocks with similar headers crown the top of some fortifications and temple walls. The first to be known come from Awâm Temple in Mâ’rib. The Yeha Temple also displays some examples of friezes with false headers that could be dated to the 8th-7th cent. BC.

  • 15 Wolf-Nowotnick 2011: 206.

27Limestone or marble gutters with a bull’s head were probably set at the top of buildings. But the exact localization can only be guessed at from traditional Yemeni houses. In the Shabwa palace, gutters were set in the roof beams of the portico around the courtyard. Although the gutter may have helped to channel water from the walls in the rainy season, it probably served primarily a decorative rather than a functional role. In Meqaber Ga’ewa, an offering table decorated with recessed panels ends in a gutter with a bull’s head15 (fig. 2.16).

  • 16 Simpson 2002: 95-97.

28Cuboid incense burners are particularly numerous in South Arabia16. Some are especially important because the four sides are occasionally inscribed with the names of four different sorts of local aromatics. Some limestone burners have conical bases, some have flaring bases. There are also cast bronze incense burners with (or without) a splayed foot, and ceramic incense burners. In Tigray some ceramic incense burners have been found around Yeha and Axum.

29It would be useful to make a list of archaeological objects and architectural elements from South Arabia which seem lacking in Axum areas. We note first of all that incense burners, small-sized and generally of stone, though found in the neighborhood of Axum and Yeha, nevertheless occur on a much more restricted scale than at South Arabian sites. The absence of male or female heads, in alabaster or in limestone, seems surprising at Ethio-Sabaean sites. By contrast, South Arabian necropolises and sanctuaries have yielded hundreds of such heads in the region between Bayhân and Jawf; most of them were in use between the 2nd cent. BC and the 2nd cent. AD. Funerary stelae of all types occur in great number at Mâ’rib (over 600). Many examples at Mâ’rib prove that the finely carved calcite alabaster heads were originally set within inscribed stelae. Other types of limestone funerary stelae or funerary pillar stelae, also very common in the Mâ’rib or Jawf areas, have not yet been found in Tigray. Busts of a female figure in high relief against a rectangular plaque, with or without inscription, widespread in Mâ’rib and Tamna‘, are unknown in Tigray.

30Despite the advances made by recent archaeological studies, there is no doubt that our current picture of material culture and art in Tigray is very inadequate. Limestone stelae, metal statues, funerary material, personal adornment etc. have left very few traces. Most of our information about Ethio-Sabaean material culture stems from Yeha and Meqaber Ga’ewa, and most of what we know of Axumite culture and architecture stems from Axum itself, Hawelti and Matarâ. In the following chapters, data from other sites will also be used, although the generally incomplete state of publication presents substantial difficulties.


1 Krencker 1913.

2 Caton-Thompson 1944.

3 Breton-Arramond-Coque-Delhuille-Gentelle 1998.

4 Munro-Hay 1989.

5 Phillipson 2000.

6 Anfray 1997.

7 Breton, Darles, Robin & Swauger 1997.

8 Partly ignorant of South Arabian publications, D. W. Phillipson asserts: “A more precise dating of the first (now vanished) temple at Yeha ‘before the mid-eighth century BC’ has been proposed (Man/,ο 2009: 292) on the basis of similarity between carving on a re-used fragment found within the surviving Great Temple, and materials from southern Arabia... In the present writer’s view [Phillipson], neither the similarities nor the chronology of the southern Arabian materials concerned necessarily support such precision” (Phillipson 2012: 26, note 25).

9 Krencker 191 fig. 102.

10 Rathjens 1957: 93-95, 123.

11 De Contenson 2005.

12 Rathjens 1937.

13 Krencker 1913: 85.

14 Breton 2011.

15 Wolf-Nowotnick 2011: 206.

16 Simpson 2002: 95-97.

© Centre français des études éthiopiennes, 2015

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