Sanctuary of the main Sabaean god Almaqah in Yeha (Tigray/Ethiopia).

Preserving northern Ethiopia’s ancient cultural heritage

Research team from University of Jena and German Archaeological Institute working with Ethiopian partners to create cultural heritage register for northern Ethiopia
Sanctuary of the main Sabaean god Almaqah in Yeha (Tigray/Ethiopia).
Image: Pawel Wolf/DAI
  • Research

Published: | By: Ute Schönfelder

A research team from Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Germany and the German Archaeolo­gical Institute (GAI) will be compiling an “Ethiopian Heritage Digital Atlas” (EHDA) over the next two years. The project, which is being carried out together with the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage of Ethiopia and Addis Ababa University, has been funded with some 215,500 euros from the Gerda Henkel Foundation. The aim of the web-based heritage information system is to ensure the conservation of Ethiopia’s historical monuments and treasures. The system will enable the monitoring of archaeological sites and contribute in this way to the scientific documentation of Ethiopia’s cultural heritage.

The cultural treasures of northern Ethiopia are acutely threatened by the country’s continuing political crisis,” says Norbert Nebes, Professor of Semitic Languages at the University of Jena. For more than a year, there have been armed clashes between government and regional troops in the northern Ethiopian Tigray National Regional State. This is the region where ancient Sabaeans left traces nearly 3,000 years ago. Norbert Nebes, specialised in the people of the legendary Queen of Sheba, is leading the project, with which he and his colleagues wish to respond to the serious crisis situation in northern Ethiopia.

The aim of the EHDA is to enable long-term monitoring of archaeological sites and to identify changes–due not just to the effects of war, but also to infrastructure measures or natural disasters–in order for appropriate protective measures to be planned or introduced on site,” says Nebes.

Satellite images of archaeological sites

The core of the EHDA is a geographic information system, which systematically records sites, monuments and objects, and combines them with archaeological and geographic information on a map. Together with photographs, aerial and satellite images, information from databases of museums and art dealers, as well as research data, the system will be used to create a comprehensive register of the region’s cultural sites. The basis for this project is research and restoration data that have been collected by Nebes and his team in Jena, as well as cooperation partners from the GAI, over more than a decade of joint research work in northern Ethiopia.

Sabaeans immigrated to Africa

Early in the first millennium BCE, Sabaean population groups set out from Yemen, their original home in the south-west of the Arabian Peninsula, towards the Red Sea, and settled in the highlands in the north of what is now Ethiopia and in southern Eritrea. In Yeha, in today’s state of Tigray in Ethiopia, they founded their political and religious centre, which can still be seen today in the remains of a magnificent palace and a monumental temple complex.

Research centre coordinates long-term projects

In terms of content, the new project to compile the cultural heritage register is attached to the long-term cooperation project funded by the German Research Foundation–“Cultural contacts between South Arabia and Ethiopia: The reconstruction of the ancient cultural region of Yeha (Tigray/Ethiopia)”–which Jena University and the GAI will be working on until 2028. This work, together with a further long-term project to compile a Sabaic dictionary, is based at the University of Jena’s newly established research centre “Ancient South Arabia and Northeast Africa”External link.