There is no denying the allure of the remote Ethiopian rock-hewn churches in Tigrai – they are set in stunning surroundings and many of their interiors are lined with vibrant artwork dating back the better part of a millennium. Most enchanting is the fact many of them are still in use today. However, some of their precarious positions on lofty cliff faces make visiting them a testing experience. Will you make the grade? By Philip Briggs.
Gheralta is a land of stone and dust. Set in the heart of Tigrai, the driest province in the Ethiopian Highlands, the burnished cliffs and tall jagged outcrops of this sandstone escarpment rise from the hot dusty plains like an African counterpart to Arizona. Below, a stoic sense of antiquity permeates the compact stone villages whose human inhabitants, with their proud Semitic features, swirling white robes and neatly-plaited hair, come across like the misplaced cast of millions from a Hollywood Biblical epic. Aptly so, for Tigraians are the distant sons and daughters of the ancient Axumites, whose empire – forged, according to local tradition, by the illegitimate son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba – converted to Christianity circa 350 AD.
Etched high into the cliffs of Gheralta is the world’s densest concentration of rock-hewn excavations, the centrepiece of what the British academic Ivy Pearce once described as “the greatest of the historical-cultural heritages of the Ethiopian people”. These are the rock-hewn churches of Tigrai, ancient architectural gems imbued with an aura of spirituality that seeps from the very stone into which they are carved. Tucked away high in the mountains, most of these 120-odd churches are in active use today, yet all but a dozen remained unknown outside their immediate congregation until the 1960s, when a full inventory was compiled by Abba Tewelde Medhin Josef.
Today, these haunting edifices remain thrillingly obscure and somewhat reluctant tourist attractions, best approached with plenty of time and in a spirit of adventure and tolerance. Simply locating the priest in charge of the key at any given church can be a protracted and ill-fated venture – if our man has gone shopping, or to visit another church, or to check on his flock, then be sure that the key will have accompanied him, and plan on returning another day.
Having located the priest and his key, you might still be refused entrance if a mass is about to take place, or it was held earlier the same day. Furthermore, the most impressive churches are generally reached along arduously steep montane footpaths, and the priest may require some serious persuasion – financial and/or otherwise – to undertake the trek purely on your behalf. Be warned, too, that some of these ascents are utterly terrifying, involving a vertiginous climb up a sheer rock face pockmarked with treacherously smooth foot and handholds.
Most famous of the churches designed to defeat those with the slightest inclination towards vertigo is Abuna Yemata Guh, carved into a tall perpendicular sandstone pillar that towers hundreds of metres above the plains of Gheralta. If you admit defeat, you’re in good company (or so say myself and Travel Africa editor, Matt Phillips, who fell – mentally, thankfully not physically – at the last precipitous hurdle). My sure-footed (or simply insane) photographer wife assures us both that the interior is simply magnificent, a warmly sepia-toned artificial cavern decorated with extensive and perfectly preserved 15th century murals depicting nine of the apostles and the nine Syrian monks who spread Christianity through Ethiopia in the 6th century. For once, I’m happy to believe the photos.
A favourite among those churches that require plenty of huff and puff to reach, but no actual risk, is the monastic Abuna Abraham Debre Tsion, which church buff Ruth Plant ranked as “one of the great churches of the Tigrai, both from the architectural and devotional aspect”. Carved into a rusty sandstone cliff face, this has the largest ground plan of any rock-hewn church in the region, and its four bays with decorated domed roofs are supported by cool rock pillars and walls decorated with murals of Old Testament figures. Behind the church, a deep rock-hewn passage leads to a decorated cell that is said to have the personal prayer room of the church’s founder, Abuna Abraham.
The antiquity of the Tigraian churches is a matter of conjecture. According to oral tradition, Abuna Abraham founded Debre Tsion in the 6th century, while several other churches in the region are attributed to Abreha and Atsbeha, the twin Axumite kings who adopted Christianity as the state religion in the 4th century. By contrast, David Buxton, the only academic ever to attempt a chronological framework, reckoned that the marvellous (and unusually accessible) church of Adi Kasho Medhane Alem is the oldest of the Tigraian excavations, dating to the 10th century AD. Other experts believe that the rock-hewn churches are even older than the traditions state, having started life as pre-Christian cave temples.
The architecture of the rock-hewn churches is awe-inspiring, but so are the many other accessories associated with the decidedly quirky Ethiopian Orthodox Church (a distant offshoot of the Coptic Church of Alexandria). At Debre Tsion, we were shown a beautiful 15th century ceremonial fan with 34 panels, each painted with a saintly figure. Outside the compound, we visited the bed of pin sharp rocks on which Abuna Abraham – like many Ethiopian saints, partial to a spot of ritual self-abuse – would writhe while he prayed! As we left the church, the priest beckoned us to stop at the edge of the plateau and sat us down, stating that Abuna Abraham had always stopped here, At such moments, one is struck by the depth of tradition that informs these isolated religious communities, and at how repetition lends a vicarious truth to probable apocrypha, so that it hardly matters whether such stories are history or myth.
Of the two-dozen Tigraian churches I’ve visited, the one that left the deepest impression is Abba Yohanni, situated halfway up a golden sandstone cliff in the remote Tembien region, its façade visible for miles around. I arrived here on a festival day, to be welcomed by a party of inebriated monks knocking back tella (millet beer). Outside the church, at the base of the bare cliffs, hundreds of swaying worshippers, draped in white and grey robes, sang discordant Arabic-sounding chants above the sort of ecclesiastic drumbeat that was outlawed by Rome centuries ago. It was a scene of overwhelming Biblical resonance, one that brought with it a jolt of radical recognition: the religion we associate with American televangelism and quaint European country churches is at root a Middle Eastern phenomenon – and here, high in the remote crags of Tigrai, it survives in a form that accentuates that ancient link, harking back to the centuries immediately after its foundation.
First published in Travel Africa magazine edition 43, Summer 2008