Few landscapes in Africa offer a charm comparable to the labyrinthine mountain system of Tigray. A fairy-tale charm that stems not only from the forest of rocky peaks that draw the horizons, but also by the large number of chapels, semi-caved churches, caves and caverns made sacred by hermits, hidden in the folds of the mountains.
127km from Mekelle & 910km from Addis Ababa, A rugged place of sharp mountains and plateaus in between. Home of more than 120 magnificent rock-hewn churches, with amazing Geez manuscripts, paintings and monastic lives, and breath-taking landscapes. It is where the most inaccessible church in the world, Abune Yimeata, is found. You can travel on the mountains, hike, trek and enjoy the adventure of the magic land.
Maryam Korkor & Daniel Korkor, Abuna Yemata Guh, Abraha We Atsbeha, Abuna Gebre Mikael Koraro, Abuna Abraham Debre Tsion, Maryam Papasetti are some of the monolithic churches.
With their sheer cliffs, surreal rock formations and vertical spires, northern Ethiopia’s Gheralta Mountains recall stretches of the southwestern United States’ red desert landscape. The primary difference: perched high and tucked away into these mountain cliffs are some of the country’s least visited rock-hewn Ethiopian Orthodox cave churches, some of which are more than 1,000 years old.
The Gheralta cluster, located in Tigray Province, includes more than 30 structures. Although local legend claims that these churches date to between the 4th and 6th Centuries, historians believe that they were more likely built from the 9th to 12th Centuries. That, and its location, makes the Gheralta cluster the geographic and artistic midpoint between the early Ethiopian Orthodox centres of Aksum, built from the 4th to 10th Centuries in the north, and Lalibela, from the 12th to 13th Centuries, further south. (Daniel Noll)
High and hidden, the Gheralta churches’ positions served two purposes: to bring devotees closer to heaven and to be out of sight to raiding armies passing through the valleys below. So in order to experience these churches, visitors must hike slot canyons, free climb sheer sandstone walls and skirt cliff edges – a cultural foray that is not for the faint of heart.
Authorities recommend that visitors trekking the Gheralta Mountains take a local guide familiar with the area’s terrain, history, culture and language. Pictured here, we followed our guide, a young man named Yemane, up through a slot canyon on our first trek to Maryam Korkor church. The path for the trek begins about 1km southeast of the village of Megab. (Audrey Scott)
After about an hour of trekking, including a 6m free climb up a sandstone wall, we reached Maryam Korkor. Out of view from the valley below, the Ethiopian Orthodox structure – which is semi-monolithic, meaning it is partly attached to the cliff face – features a simple façade that protects an almost disproportionately vast-looking interior 17m deep and more than 9m wide, all carved out of the mountain rock. (Audrey Scott)
Inside Maryam Korkor, cruciform pillars and 6m high arches are covered with religious frescoes made from natural dyes. Although local lore dates the frescoes to the 13th Century, art historians believe they are a product of the 17th Century, due to some Byzantine characteristics, such as the church’s image of Christ in the womb, shown here. (Audrey Scott)
The caretaker of Maryam Korkor and the nearby church of Daniel Korkor is a man named Aba Tesfa Silassie, a 78-year-old Ethiopian Orthodox monk who has lived in this remote mountain spot for 63 years. He rarely hikes down into the villages; while we were there, local boys brought him canisters of drinking water and supplies in exchange for reading and Bible lessons. We followed him out to the cliff’s edge in order to reach the Daniel Korkor church entrance, tucked inside the rock wall. Silassie walked effortlessly along the ledge in plastic sandals, paying no mind to the roughly 300m sheer drop to his left. (Audrey Scott)
We crawled through a small doorway to enter Daniel Korkor, a two-room church whose ceilings and upper walls are painted with natural berry and flower pigments. The painting style here is more simplistic than in other Gheralta churches; we liked the simple representation of St George slaying the dragon, shown here on the left wall. Until the 20th Century, literacy education was often reserved for Ethiopian Orthodox monks and priests, so many people learned Bible and Ethiopian history stories through paintings like these. Meanwhile, cloth shrouds like the one on the right signify and protect areas reserved for the storage of holy treasures, such as religious manuscripts and ancient crosses used for blessings. (Daniel Noll)
Upon exiting Daniel Korkor, we gained enough composure (and confidence) on the cliff’s edge to take in this panoramic view of the Gheralta Mountains, with the Hawzien Plain below. Our guide remarked that local mothers often make the same trek, newborns tied to their backs, within 40 to 80 days of giving birth in order to baptise their babies at the church. They have been doing so for more than 1,000 years. (Audrey Scott)
The following morning, we began our climb to the church of Abuna Yemata Guh along a route that made than our previous day’s journey look almost easy. Setting off, we saw this tiny, modern Ethiopian Orthodox church, which marks the trailhead on the valley floor. Local Christians, preferring to worship at a spot closer to heaven, make the climb to the ancient cave church each Sunday and on holidays. Before setting off, our guide pointed up to the cliffs to show us where we are headed, but none of us could spot our destination, hidden amid the rocks. (Daniel Noll)
After about a 2km climb, we approached a nearly 90-degree sandstone rock face some 7m high. Our guide asked us to remove our shoes out of respect; we were entering the limits of the holy ground of the Abuna Yemata Guh church above. Noticing our looks of concern, he assured us that we would be able to better grip the holes in the sandstone with our bare feet. Without the aid of any ropes or climbing instruments, our ascent felt appropriately akin to taking a leap of faith. (Daniel Noll)
Local men dotting the trail offered climbing help in an attempt to make some extra money. We listened to their instructions, but followed closely those administered by our lead guide: “Right foot there, left hand in that hole. And don’t look down.” With each deliberate move, we inched our way slowly up the rock. After scaling the wall to a clearing just above it, we dusted ourselves off. We could barely consider how we would manage it on the way back down. (Daniel Noll)
To reach Abuna Yemata Guh, we then had to navigate a natural stone bridge with a sheer drop of approximately 250m on either side. From there, we crossed a final narrow wooden footbridge, then hugged the edges of an unsettlingly smooth sandstone wall until we found the entrance. Relieved, we took a few minutes inside to rest and adjust to the darkness and the frescoes inside. On the ceiling above, a painting depicted nine of the 12 apostles; the remaining three apostles appeared on a side wall. It is unclear why they are separated – our guide joked that the artist unexpectedly ran out of room. Art historians believe the paintings date from the 15th Century, but like the other Gheralta church frescoes they are well preserved, since their remote location has protected them from looting and from the scars of conflict. (Audrey Scott)