Tigrai is a region in the north of Ethiopia. Dry, hot and dusty, Tigrai is best known for its rock hewn churches, chiseled out of the copious limestone cliff faces in its precipitous mountains. We had originally planned an attempt on public transport to see some of these churches but, with the remoteness and potential difficulty of finding the priests with the keys, in the end we signed up for a two day private tour. We left from our hotel in Aksum to visit a monastery on a cliff top, followed by four rock hewn churches and ending on the second day in Mekele, the capital of Tigrai region.
Our first stop outside of Aksum was Debre Damo, a monastery built on a mountain top and completely surrounded by cliffs. Debre Damo is said to be the first monastery ever built in Ethiopia, by one of the original nine Syrians who brought Christianity to Ethiopia from the holy lands, in the 5th century AD. Legend has it that a giant serpent dropped its tail down the cliff face to lift the monk to the top. Apparently the serpent left long ago because our only choice of conveyance was a handmade leather rope to haul ourselves up, with two monks pulling from above on another strip of leather tied round our waists. Once up we found a whole village of monks’ houses and explored the beautiful old church with its tilting ceilings and worn stone floors. Getting back down was the scariest part but scaling cliffs definitely makes going to church a lot more exciting!
MEDHAME ALEM KESHO
The next stop was much easier to access, and after an easy ten minute walk we arrived at the front of the church of Medhame Alem Kesho with our very friendly and helpful priest-guide, whom we picked up on the way. Carved entirely out of the sandstone cliff face our first impressions of the church were quite awe inspiring. Inside however, once our eyes adjusted to the dark, the true intricacy of the carving became apparent as the priest helpfully used a long stick with a flame on the end to illuminate the carved rock ceiling. The priest here was the nicest we have encountered on our whole trip and the visit was a pleasure, he even gave us a demonstration of the original church lock of wooden sticks on strings (still in use today).
ABUNA YEMATA GUH
After a night in Hawzien we set off early for this, the jewel in the Crown of the Tigrai churches, Abuna Yemata Guh. A bit too early as it turns out, the priest still not back from his trip to market the previous day. Eventually he did appear, along with the church key to let us in. But first we had to reach the door. No mean feat. Abuna Yemata Guh is the most inaccessible of all the Tigrai churches, with the entrance located part way up a sheer cliff on the side of a rock pinacle. First a steep hike, then some bare foot free climbing (no rope this time) using some very polished holds cut into the cliff face. Some scrambling, a bit more climbing and then you reach the main cliff. The next stage is a vertigo inducing traverse of a narrow ledge, hundreds of feet up the rock face, until you reach the safety of the church entrance chamber, and relief. The interior of the church was almost as impressive as the access route, with the original paintings covering the ceiling and walls. With such spectacular views, some exercise, adrenaline, and culture, we both felt this was the best thing we had done on the whole trip so far.
MARYAM KORKOR and DANIEL KORKOR
At the top of the adjacent mountainside to the one housing Abuna Yemata Guh these two churches are within a two minute walk of each other. The hike up was spectacular, starting with a steep pull up inside a large crack in the rock face, followed by clambering up some slabby rock and along some more narrow ledges until we reached the church. The views were unbelievable and, although the churches themselves were interesting, it was definitely the best thing about visiting these churches. The big let down was the money grabbing priest and his accomplices who wanted money for turning a key despite the already steep entrance fee paid.
Two days with a private driver was pure bliss after so long on public transport, and it was with a heavy heart that we said goodbye to our driver and boarded a public minibus headed towards Lalibela, our last stop in Ethiopia before Sudan.
Time on public transport: 4hrs
Distance travelled: approx. 406km
Countries visited: 1
Time on public transport: 13days10hrs
Distance travelled: approx. 14,673km
Countries visited: 11