Out of Africa (Part 6/7) - Ethiopia - The Rock-Hewn Churches of Tigray

Updated: Mar 31, 2019


Abba Yohani Cave Monastery, Tigray

Getting to Tigray

The area to the far north of Ethiopia, alongside the disputed border of Eritrea, is the ancient state of Tigray. Wild, mountainous, arid land which presents the traveller with a stark and barren view of Ethiopia, it is arresting scenery: probably more what you would imagine as 'typical' Ethiopian scenery if you haven't been there before. We had joined a group of travellers to do a two day trip around the so-called rock-hewn churches of northern Tigray. I'd decided to bite the bullet and do an organized trip, not something I do lightly, (a) because the churches of Tigray are widely-scattered and hard to get to on your own, if not impossible, and (b) because I'd scrimped and saved so much so far I felt I deserved it. Also, what we were doing hardly qualified as mass tourism, and money was most definitely going to locals this way anyway, albeit enterprising locals who could afford a jeep and small business. For here, in this remote region, lie around 120 ancient monasteries and churches, some free-standing, some semi-monolithic and many just carved directly out of the rocks and cliffs that surround them.

A man of the cloth: guarding a church in Tigray

All they have in common is that they are surrounded by dry, rocky, sparsely populated landscapes. Very little is known about their origins; only that they date from between the 9th and 15th centuries, and were probably built in such remote areas so as to protect themselves from raiding Muslims. Ethiopia, in fact, has some claim to being one of the oldest and first-converted Christian countries in the world, not far behind Georgia and Armenia. Some of these religious sites are found in clusters, others are so remote that you have to prepare for a long trek from the point where driving becomes impossible up steep mountains and occasionally heart-stoppingly tricky sheer rock faces. We were prepared for it though; we had been to the Simiens after all. What could be worse than that? The group we went with comprised a middle-aged Italian couple, the guy a muscular ex-P.E teacher, an incredibly cheerful and friendly German couple who had taken a year out of their lives to do a world trip ; an English guy called James travelling solo; and me and Harry. Quite an eclectic group. Our bus left Aksum at the normal 6am after some customary haggling about money with a couple of persistent locals who had hoisted our bags onto the roof of the bus. After a couple of stiff cappucinos, I was awake and ready to go. The trip from Axum over the mountains to Adigrat was stunningly pretty, and for once, done in the comfort of a private bus without someone's armpit in my face - and on good fast roads, too.

Budget travel, Ethiopian style

Border tensions

It was particularly memorable for seeing perhaps the most crowded vehicle I'd ever seen - a truck which had so many people travelling in it that they were clinging on to the back and sides of it. I took a picture of it from the bus, and the amazing thing is that everyone in it smiling and waving to me - the Ethiopians have an amazingly cheerful outlook sometimes, and a tolerance for discomfort which is hugely impressive. Adigrat is a town which has probably suffered as much as anywhere in Ethiopia over recent times; before the conflict with Eritrea, it was an important border town which also happens to enjoy a great setting in a bowl surrounded by high brooding mountains. Today, it's a rather unimportant place with little to delay the tourist; a backwater waiting for tensions with its northern neighbour to ease. The strong U.N presence in the town suggested that this day may be some way off yet though. It's a shame, since overland travel to Eritrea would have been extremely appealing - the opportunity to travel through these fantastic mountains and arrive in the Italian-influenced capital of Asmara before heading down to some undiscovered spot on the southern Red Sea coast would have made this trip truly unforgettable. As it was, it was turning out to be pretty superb anyway, the huge amount of discomfort we often had to put up with notwithstanding.

Church of St. Petros and Paulos, Tigray

Ful if you think it's over

After a quick breakfast of 'ful' (spicy beans with sauce) and scrambled egg with a large latte, we headed off south (having reached the northern-most point of the trip) and towards the first church of the day. There are over 120 churches in total in the Tigray area, scattrered over a massive area; you could spend a week here and not see them all. If you've got a couple of days, choose wisely, try not to see too much, or do as we did - put your trust in your knowledgable guides and let them lead you to what they think you'll like. In some cases, this tactic is necessary, and this was definitely one of those times. Of course, it took much longer than anticipated to get where we wanted along a bumpy track but after several kilometres, we came to the Church of Petros and Paulos. Set high up a cliff and commanding fantastic views of the surrounding countryside, it was impressive enough. Only partly hewn, and constructed of wood, stone and mortar around a steep ledge, it also contained some delightful though rapidly deteriorating murals. Our experience here was somewhat spoilt by the obligatory gangs of children begging for money, and also by the guy who let us in to the place who was demanding birr for every picture we took - hugely annoying. The next church we visited was equally impressive. After about another hour's drive, we came to a small hill which involved a simple twenty minute ascent. Named Medhane Alem, this roughly-hewn church was highly impressive. Looking for all the world as if it had grown naturally with the rest of the hillside it was carved from, it boasted an inner rock-hewn section and again some fine wall murals. The view was pretty good as well.

Medhane Alem - carved into the hillside

Stephan, the normally cheerful German, lost his rag a bit with the priest for charging us 50 birr ($3) for getting into the church. Granted, the Germans were on a round-the-world trip, but even I wasn't really too worried about this fee - it seemed a bit churlish to argue. I was bothered about being asked for money for every other little thing though, such as kids looking after our shoes when we were in the churches or being pointed back down the hill to our bus. It all gets a bit tedious after a while. The last church of the day was Chirkos, in Wukro, the easiest of all to access but that shouldn't detract from it. Though it was a bit of a hybrid, built out of bricks and carved out of a huge sandstone rock, it is said to be the oldest of the churches in Tigray (pre-10000), and contains some stunning murals inside.

Chirkos rock-hewn church, Wukro, Tigray

Hike to Abuna Yemata Guh

We stopped for the night in a very pink hotel in a place called Wukro, a place that defines the term 'one-horse town', but we found a restaurant to get fed and watered which was pretty acceptable, and by about 8pm I was pretty sloshed; an early night was had which was a good thing. I'd need the energy the next day. The ascent to Abuna Yemata Guh is, to begin with at least, not all that taxing, though spectacular. It's probably the most remote of all the churches in the region, and we had to spend an hour or so going down a bumpy and deserted track to get to the point where we started to walk, near a little village called Megab. We hiked in pretty hot conditions for about 45 minutes uphill, surrounded by flies and also by a large crowd of locals who trailed behind us up the path, obviously with the hope of some cash handouts. There were far more than usual here though, which made me suspect that there would be more need for assistance at this particular church.

Tigray scenery - arid and beautiful

Suspicions were confirmed a few minutes later when, on reaching an oak tree which commanded great views of the region, we were informed that this is the point where some locals coming to the church stop and pray because of the difficulty of getting up the next section. I looked up; a trail seemed to lead up a few hundred metres to a sheer rock face. How we were to get up that without ladders and climbing equipment, I wasn't sure. On reaching this bare ten metre rock face a few minutes later, it became clear - you have to climb up it, preferably barefoot, in order to get a better toe-hold in the rock, and just hope for the best. The locals were there to show us where to put our fingers and toes when ascending it, but they weren't providing any safety nets. I had a rather sickly feeling in my stomach, and watched the rest of the group go up the face without much problem. On attempting it for the first time however, I just froze half way up and got the fear. I couldn't move. Not the most mobile at the best of times, this required physical agility and movement that I lacked. Composing myself, I looked up instead of down, and just gritted my teeth. I got my foot in the right toeholds with the aid of one of the locals (who I was sincerely glad had come to my assistance though I knew I'd be paying for it), and made the final few metres ascent.

Vertical ascent: don't try this unless you have a modest level of fitness

I got to the ledge above and just sat for a few minutes to gather my breath; the locals seemed to find it amusing that it was so tricky for me, as they just shimmy up without a problem. For me, it was like trying to scale the north face of Everest. Unfortunately, the worst was not yet over. After another tricky scramble on all fours, we reached a ledge, one metre wide, below which was a drop of 700 metres into the valley below. The ledge curved around the cliff face to the monastery which was carved into it. This last section required steely nerves for someone with slight vertigo (which I guess I have), and I have to admit it took a minute to summon the courage to carry on at this point. On reaching the cave-like monastery, the sense of achievement was palpable. The views from it are astounding, and the remoteness of it just makes it feel incredibly special.

The ledge - a metre wide, a thousand foot drop

Unreal Church

How anyone could have thought of placing a church here is beyond me; to imagine people trailing up here for church services just seems unreal. The inside of the church itself was almost irrelevant - it's frescoes and cupolas were impressive, but much less so than the view out of the door to a gaping chasm below: a view and an experience that will stay for me for a long time. We just sat in there for some time, soaking it all up. Harry, who suffered from quite severe vertigo, and who'd had to overcome it to do this, was physically shaking, adrenaline coursing. I myself am no fan of heights and steep drops, and I'd have to say that this hike should under no circumstances be attempted by those without a pretty strong constitution. It's not made clear enough by your Ethiopian guides just what a challenge this is; it certainly shouldn't be attempted by kids under the age of about twelve, and anyone overweight and unfit can forget it. I was on the border of this category, but happily the right side.

Frescoes inside Abuna Yemata Guh, Tigray

The hike back down the mountain was no less easy than coming up, but at least I knew what was coming this time. I was able to scramble down in a somewhat ungainly fashion and with no further incident. The rest of the day was somewhat anti-climactic, after all that.

This region had proved a challenge equal in many ways to the Simiens, and again is one which should be much more widely known. Its lack of tourism is obviously part of its mystique, but I suppose one day it'll be 'discovered' - for now, anyone who ventures this far off the beaten track is in for a treat. Getting here is part of the adventure. Do it the hard way. It is, after all, the only way there is.

View from Abuna Yemata Guh, Tigray




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This blog is part of a series. To see the previous/next parts, on Axum and Lalibela respectively, go here:

Part 5/7: Axum's Stellae

Part 7/7: Lalibela


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