In theÂ 2nd century AD, the famous Egyptian geographer Claudius Ptolemy made reference to an important ancient town named Koloe. It has long been thought that( Qohaito Kohaito was equivalent to Koloe. But even if it is not (some modern scholars favor nearby Metera), Kohaito importance in the ancient world during this time is obvious.
Very little is known about the exact history of the settlement.Â A few ancient chronicles record thatÂ Kohaito was still flourishing in the 6th century AD. However, like Adulis and Metera, it then vanished very suddenly in the next one or two hundred years.
Kohaito, which lies at high altitude of 2700m,Â once may have served as a kind of summer retreat for the rich merchants from nearby towns. The traces of cultivated areas found between the buildings have led to the belief that Kohaito was once a garden city.
Lying some 121km south of Asmara, Kohaito’s impressive ruins are spread over a large area measuring 2.5km wide by 15km long. As much as 80 to 90% of the ruins remain unexcavated. In 1996 and 1997, a German expedition surveyed both Kohaito and Metera.
A short walk from Kohaito takes you to the edge of a vast canyon that drops away dramatically. The views of the surrounding mountains, including Mt. Ambasoira (3013m) to the south (the highest peak in Eritrea), are stunning. Far below, you can make out the terraced fields and tiny tukuls of seemingly to totally inaccessible Saho settlement.
Among Kohaito’s most important ruins is the so-calledÂ Temple of Mariam WakiroÂ that was built on a rectangular plan on a solid platform, and may have been the site of a very early Christian church or even a pre-Christian temple. In the local language this site has long been referred to asÂ ‘abode of the prestigious one’.
About a kilometer to the north of the ruins of Mariam Wakiro, lies aÂ tomb discovered in 1894 nicknamed ‘Meqabir Ghibtsi’ or the Egyptian tomb because of its impressive size. The tomb faces east, overlooking the Hedamo River. Rectangular in shape and built with large blocks of stones, its most distinctive features are the two quatrefoil (flower-shaped) crosses carved on the inside walls.
Shapira Dam,Â measuring 67m long and 16m deep, is constructed of large rectangular blocks of stone that measure close to 1m by 0.5m,Â is Kohaito’s greatest claim to fame. The masonry is quite beautifully dressed- one of the reasons perhaps for the dam’s incredible longevity.Â For around 1000 years, it has served the local Saho people as the main source of water. Following recent investigation carried out by the German team,Â this water cistern date back to around 1 Century AD and even before this period. On one of the walls inside the dam are some inscriptions in ancient Ge’ez, made up of 79 words, is the longest yet found in Ge’ez.
At Iyago, near Kohaito, south-east of Mt Faquiti,Â an open shelter around 9m long is covered in rock paintings dating from approximately 4000-5000BC.Â Nearly 100 figures painted in ochre, black and reddish-brown adorn the rock face, depicting cattle, antelopes and perhaps lions. Other rock shelters in the area includeÂ Ba’atti Abager, Zebanona LibanosÂ andÂ Mai Ayni, where figures include warriors with long spears and oval-shaped shields, and wearing animal skins seem to be indulging in a ritual dance.
Around Qohaito (Kohaito)
Matara (Metera)/Belew Kelew
Situated 20km south of Kohaito, house some of Eritrea’s most important historical sites. Like Kohaito, Matara (also called Metera) flourished in the 6th century AD. The scattered ruins testify to the existence of a once large and prosperous town.
Metera is important forÂ three mainÂ reasons:Â for its age-Â some of it,Â from about 5th century BC;Â for its huge size– it spreads over at least 20 hectares and is known among locals as Belew-Kelew, it is much the largest site after Adulis; andÂ for its unusual character-Â it is the only place where a large bourgeois community is known to have thrived.
One of Metera’s most important objects is itsÂ enigmatic stele. Unique in Eritrea, the stele isÂ known for its pagan, pre-Christian symbol of the sun over the crescent moon- a south Arabian divinity, engraved on the top of the eastern face; and it faces eastward.Â Standing 2.5m tall, the stele has an inscription near the middle in Gee’z. An unknown king dedicated the stele to his ancestors who had subjugated the ‘mighty people of Awanjalon, Tsebelan’.
Metera’s discovery came in 1868,Â when Frenchman Denis de Rivoire reported its existence. In 1903, an Italian officer made a few amateur excavations in two places. The first scientific survey was carried out by the German Expedition in 1906. In 1959, the French archeologist Francis Anfray began a major excavation of the site. From 1959 to 1965, various sites were excavated. A large mould located 100m north-west of the stele revealed a big, central building- perhaps aÂ royal palaceÂ or a villa- attached to an annexe of living quarters. A huge wall surrounds the whole complex. Several burial chambers were found in the larger building; in one of them, the skeleton of a chained prisoner was discovered. Between 1961 and 1962, a large, square, multiroomed complex built on a sturdy podium and aÂ tomb chamberÂ were unearthed. Anfray’s excavations also uncovered four large villas, some smaller houses, three Christian churches and a residential quarter- perhaps for the common people.
Objects unearthed at Metera in the last 50 or more years include some beautiful and amazingly well-preservedÂ gold objects-Â two crosses, two chains, a brooch, necklaces and 14 Roman coins dating from between the 2nd and 3rd century AD- found in a bonze vase. Many household items including bronze lamps, needles and daggers, Mediterranean amphorae, and the remains of large marble plates were unearthed.
Only tiny part of Metera has been excavated. Big moulds lie tantalizingly untouched all around the ancient people’Ã¢â‚¬â„¢s tomb Ã¢â‚¬â€œ hidden somewhere among the rocks Ã¢â‚¬â€œ still awaits exploration, and may yield a remarkable finds.
One of the more remarkable things, here and at the other Archeological sites, is thatÂ the cement that binds the bricks show no sign of weakening even after some 1,400 years, a fact which is unlikely to be true of the stuff manufactured today.Metera has been identified by the historian Kobishchanov as the ancient city ofÂ Koleo, which currently seem to be more acceptable theory that the one put forward in the 1890s by Bent, thatÂ Koleo was Kohaito.
TOCONDA–Â lie 4km south of Adi Keyh in a wide valley. The ground is littered with potsherds, broken pillars and chiseled stones. Close to the dirt road there are two pillars: one standing, another with a curious rounded head. On a hill west of the site, there is an early inscription curved on a large basalt rock.
Keskese–Â lies in a small valley 128km south of Asmara. This huge, unexcavated site is considered exceptional for its pre-Christian and pre-Islamic remains, which include the ancient tomb of a local prince or lord. Lying among the barley fields like elongated, upturn boats are various huge monoliths, including one measuring a giant 14m long. Some stelae bear ancient inscriptions in Ge’ez; from their style, it is believed that they are at least 2500 years old. Elephants are offered as the most likely explanations from the way the immense stones were transported.