Our first venture in northern Ethiopia had us taking a 14-hour bus ride into Mekele, the base city for trips to both the churches of Tigrai and excursions to the Danakil Depression. We found that Mekele itself doesn’t have much to offer, other than clean streets, some subpar restaurants, amazing juices and some seriously delicious honey covered pancakes. Honestly, the pancakes alone were worth the 14-hour journey. Well done, Green Valley Café (but your service is terrible).
We had a few days free before we departed for the Danakil, so we signed up for a last minute (as usual) trip to the churches. I’m glad we did. We headed to the tour agency at 7am and to our surprise, found a new Landcruiser, cushy seats at all, waiting for us. Two hours later we were in Megab, a small village at the base of the Gheralta Mountains, starting our ascent up the mountain. Our guide lead is through small crevasses and had us scampering up sandstone cliff faces, occasionally stopping to let us catch our breath or explore an old hermit cave. After an hours hike, we found ourselves at the church known as Debre Maryam Korkor. The priest unlocked the door and lead us into the church. We sat and listened as our guide spoke of its history and importance. Dating back to the 6th century, priests had lived on this distant plateau, dedicating their lives to their gods and a peaceful lifestyle. Only a few people lived on the plateau, but each Sunday and special service, dozens would make the hours hike to the church in order to pray and be closer to god. The journey is difficult, especially for those of an older age, so a new, much less remote church, was being built. We took our time to enjoy the stunning views in front of us. With a cloudless sky, it was as if we could see all the way across Ethiopia.
The second church on our list was Abuna Yemata Guh, considered the most beautiful of all of Tigrai’s churches, mainly because of it’s location. The church was carved into the top of a giant rock pillar, and the only way to reach it is an hour’s hike that included scaling 20 feet of a sheer sandstone face using only uneven hand and foot holes, as well as crossing a narrow walkway with a 660 foot drop on one side. Loes and I both overcame whatever nerves we had and made it through unscathed. The same couldn’t be said for our traveling partners, who had a bit of trouble and fright when attempting to come back down. Luckily the guides and local worshippers were there to give us step-by-step instructions.
Blessed with breath-taking views, Abuna Yemata Guh lived up to its reputation. In addition to its surroundings, the interior of the church was eye opening as well. When discussing the church locations with our guide, he mentioned three reasons for their placement. First, with the churches being built so high up on the mountains, it allowed for the priests and monks to be closer to god. Second, with the churches being so far away from the towns and other people, it meant the priests and monks were that much farther from temptation. Lastly, with the churches being so far away from their enemies, it meant the priests and monks were that much safer from harm. Subsequently, no harm has befallen this church. While other churches had been set fire to or razed, this one had been left in tact. This allowed us to observe untouched ancient paintings and gaze upon books from the 6th century. It was as if we were in a time capsule, insulated from all that has happened since the church was first built.
The churches of Tigrai are a truly impressive experience, one that should be on the top of everyone’s list if they plan on visiting Ethiopia.