In the Mountains of Tigray - Rock-hewn Churches of Ethiopia | Story and Film by HandZaround

Hawzen, Ethiopia, September 2017

We woke up to the sounds of birds chirping and small insects coming to life after the night. We couldn’t believe how well our stone house was keeping the heat because when we opened the door, dressed in shorts and ready to welcome the day, a cold breeze filled with mountain air swept across the floor and gave our skin goosebumps.

 


In Gheralta Mountains

The travel film from our time in Tigray was possible thanks to Gheralta Lodge and ETT


Tigray Churches are famous for their picturesque location, beautiful history and somewhat difficulty to reach. Whilst some of them are an off-road drive and a 5 minute walk up the stone stairs, others require walking for hours, climbing vertical rock shelves, and an ability to let go of your fear of heights!
Although we’re not very religious, we find historical places very moving, and if you can add an adventurous side to it, which would be climbing, we’re definitely up for it. Surrounded by beautiful landscapes and the grounds of the place we stayed in, Gheralta Lodge, we were in an eerie mood, in awe of everything around us - including the wonderful stone huts designed to blend in with nature. After our first night near Gheralta Mountains, we were ready to conquer them!

- Read more about our stay in Gheralta Lodge here -

Abuna Yemata - a Climb Away

 At the viewpoint in Gheralta Lodge - we had pretty fantastic weather!

At the viewpoint in Gheralta Lodge - we had pretty fantastic weather!

 Zach looking at Gheralta Mountains and the cliffs where Abuna Yemata is located

Zach looking at Gheralta Mountains and the cliffs where Abuna Yemata is located


You may know from our previous adventure to the volcano that we’re not the fittest type and we like physical challenges not to last too long… So Abuna Yemata Church looked like a perfect choice. We were told we would walk up for about an hour and we would then have to climb up the rock shelves with or without the rope, this was up to us, to reach to the Church carved in a free standing 300m tall rock.
Since this particular Church was very difficult to get to, we were told, nothing inside was destroyed by the battles and intruders. The church itself is said to have been rock hewn about the 4th BC, but the paintings are estimated for 12th century BC (our guide) or 14th century BC (information in the guidebooks). Nonetheless, the paintings have never been re-painted or re-stored - the colours haven’t been touched, they’re completely original as the painter left them in 12th or 14th century. We couldn’t wait to see them - we read some information online but weren’t especially looking for the photographs of the paintings so we weren’t sure what to expect.
We were also told that Abuna Yemata is still active - people from the nearby village belong to this church so during Sunday masses or holidays of Saints, the church receives many local visitors. The funerals and weddings also still happen there - it couldn’t be too difficult to reach it then, we thought…

- Read our comprehensive guide 'How to visit Tigray Churches on a budget?' here -

 

Out of breath walk

 Buying the tickets to Abuna Yemata (150 birr each) - the office is simply a bit of shade under an old tree

Buying the tickets to Abuna Yemata (150 birr each) - the office is simply a bit of shade under an old tree


The car left us near a huge tree giving us a nice break from the 9am sun - there were no traces of the mountain breeze that woke us up earlier this morning. Our guide set off first, we followed, and behind us the priest who would open the door and a couple of scouts who knew the area very well.
Only 10 minutes into the trek up the steep rocky path, we were already out of breath. The local guys have been now in front of us, chatting happily whilst we were trying to communicate to each other in between the deep breaths. The scenery was incredible though - we were slowly entering the area that was shaded by the cliff-like rocks pointing over 300 metres up in the sky. When we turned around, we had the panoramic view of the villages down below, Gheralta Lodge and the town of Hawzen. The squawks of the vultures, flying high above our heads, made us feel like we're out in the wild and we can only count on our legs to take us anywhere.

Facing the wall

 Walking on the ledge

Walking on the ledge


We got to the point where the path ended and we were faced with big steep rocks that were in between a large vertical rock shooting up to the sky, and a deep gorge, that we really didn’t feel like falling into! We got some rest to catch our breaths and cool down in the shade. We had to mentally prepare and find the strength in our arms. They would now be a vital part of the whole climbing experience. Our guide told us that this part wasn't yet too difficult so we don't need the harnesses or ropes... 'What's difficult to him then?' I thought. My heart was throbbing in fear when I was carefully balancing each step up the boulders. Then we got up to a rocky ledge that was wide enough to put a foot on it and worst comes to worst you can lean towards the rock on the side as it wasn't completely vertical. We were quite high then, so our heads were spinning a bit because of the altitude, or maybe fear, who knows! We made it safely to a decently sized surface where the rocks were flat and a few trees were growing out of the crevices. Never mind the vertical rocks we were faced with before - we were standing in front of a totally vertical rock wall and could hardly notice any nooks or crannies that would help us get to the top, yet the priest just took off and waved to us once he was at the top...

Shoes off!

 Where 'the stairs' begun...

Where 'the stairs' begun...

We took off our shoes to get a better grip. The scouts helped us up with the harnesses and our guide climbed up to the top to secure the ropes. I went first and I don't remember much from the couple of minutes climbing because my head and heart were just throbbing in fear. Yes, I did have ropes and the harness, but if my arms or legs were too weak, and I wouldn't be able to hold my body on the worn out moulds and nooks in the rocks, I would just bounce off the rock wall - this wasn't the best scenario. I got to the top but to my surprise it wasn't the end. After I caught a breath and Zach joined me, we walked without the ropes, following the priest, who was climbing up the large rocks ahead of us. He showed us his technique in one difficult place, where we had to turn around and lift ourselves up placing our elbows tightly between the rocks, so that our legs could reach a rock that would take us even higher. Eventually we got to the western side and we were able to see the big rock that Abuna Yemata was carved into. Our guide once again jumped up to the top, secured the ropes, and we now had to climb up a steep boulder with two 150m gorges on both sides. Phew...we eventually made it and a guy from a group of friends, who caught up with us, was shouting questions whether it was difficult. We didn't want to scare him, but yes - it was freaking scary!

Emotional Encounter

 We were taken by surprise with how well the paintings inside Abuna Yemata have been preserved!

We were taken by surprise with how well the paintings inside Abuna Yemata have been preserved!

Once we walked on yet another rock shelf, we made it into a cave where the Church was located. We were the first ones at the top so the priest had to unlock the gate for us. We followed his white robes and the darkness slowly lightened up with the only light coming from the open wooden door behind us. We saw a couple of rock columns and all the walls and ceiling covered in the paintings. They might have been painted yesterday - their colours were so vivid and everything was clearly visible. We sat down in the middle and listened to the story of how the Church was thought to have been created. I couldn't believe that we were looking under the paintings from over 500 years ago, untouched, and so vibrant. My eyes filled in with tears and I immediately got annoyed with myself - why the hell did I want to cry?! Maybe because it was so difficult to get there and the reward was amazing? Maybe because it was the first thing - that old, that was preserved so well, and not touched by anyone else but its creator? When our time in the inside was up, I told Zach that earlier on I felt like crying, and to my surprise he said he felt exactly the same! Maybe this is what Abuna Yemata simply does to you.


See below for more photos from our adventure!


Gheralta Lodge sponsored our stay and guide whilst visiting Tigray Churches, whilst ETT provided us with a driver and a car, which we thank them for. All opinions in this article are, as always, our own.



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