The ancient rock-hewn churches of Tigray were built between 4th and 15th century, there are more than 100 of them. They offer amazing atmospheric ambience and views over spectacular landscapes. In this video visit to 6 of the most appealing churches in Tigray – interesting either historically, architecturally or because they offer the most spectacular views over the surrounding landscapes. We hiked to 3 of the Gheralta cluster churches: Maryam and Daniel Korkor, Abuna Yemata Guh; visited Mikael Imba (Atsbi cluster), Medhane Alem Adi Kasho and Petros and Paulos (Teka Tesfai cluster), and Abreha We Atsbeha (Wukro cluster).
Wukro Cluster is predominantly well known for the collection of Rock-Hewn Churches. The cluster comprises the Eastern part of Tigrai and it is in this cluster that one passes through to the Danakil Depression as well. The rock forest of Gherealta and the Desea forest are among which that draws the attention of visitors.
II.A Brief Description of Tourist Attraction Sites
Wukro and its Outskirts: Distant Antique Delights
The paved Mekelle-Wukro road via the small town of Mai Mekden begins its course by climbing the mountain Mesebo up to a highland plain, reaching Wukro after 47km. This small, fast-developing town provides a convenient jump off for many of Tigrai’s most famous tourist attractions, with connections to Atsbi, Tsaeda Imba, Hawzien, Adigrat and Aksum.
Mekabir Ga’ewa Archaeological Site at Adi Akaweh
Located in the southwestern outskirts of the town of Wukro, Adi Akawh is a recently discovered archaeological site. The discovery of the site has created much excitement and interest among archaeologists. German and Ethiopian archaeologists have discovered a number of objects, including a statue of a seated woman and an altar with a Sabaean inscription on it as well as a partially inscribed podium. A translation of the inscription has already been made by professor Norbert Nebes of Jena University, Germany. To the surprise of archaeologists, the inscription mentions the pre-Aksumite Di’amat kingdom and the temple of Yeha. From the evidence assembled, the site is tentatively dated to the 8th or 7th century before the birth of Christ.
The northern edge of Wukro town holds a rock-hewn church called Wukro Cherkos. It is a semi-monolithic church whose side walls, front wall and roof are completely separated and projecting from the main rock. It is attached to the rock only on its floor and at its back wall. The church is believed to have been carved during the fourth century. Internal architecture and art works, rectangular carved columns of quartz – rich sandstone, supporting arches and curved ceilings decorated by similar designs characterise this church. The presence of a sand stone slab with inscriptions of the Aksumite type in the vicinity of the church may also support the claim that the church dates back to Aksumite period.
The Church of Abraha Atsbeha
About 15km drive west from Wukro; Abraha We Atsbeha is located in one of the most scenic sites of the region. Considered among the country’s earliest churches, it is known for extraordinary interior decoration as well as its magnificent murals. Its ceiling is decorated with sophisticated patterns and its walls are dotted by curved crosses. More than a dozen enormous columns divide the interior of the church into several bays and aisles. Without doubt, Abraha Atsbeha is a rock church masterpiece. According to local tradition, the church was constructed in the 4th century, but some scholars estimated its date of construction to be the 10th century. What is certain is that it is built well before the famous rock-hewn churches at Lalibela.
Tigrai, the cradle of Ethiopian Christendom, also contributed for the growth and transformation of Islam, the other great religion of the world. One of the least known histories in Ethiopia is the contribution Tigrai has made to the protection of Islam in the early stage of its development. History has it that after escaping persecution from the mercantile rulers of Mecca, the first group of Prophet Mohammed’s followers had sought refuge in Ethiopia, described by the prophet, as a kingdom of a “righteous king” where “no-one is wronged”. It was at Negash, 60 km north of Mekelle – the state’s capital – that most of the prophet’s co-religionists had stayed and eventually buried. Negash is the Islamic world’s second holiest city, only preceded by Mekkah. As a result, the Prophet exempted Ethiopia from Jihad, the Islamic Holy war.
ATSBI – WONBERTA
East of Wukro town lies the Atsbidera plateau with its striking churches – Mikael Barka, Mikael Imba, and Debreselam Mikael. These splendidly executed edifices are found perched on mountains with commanding the views of their surroundings.
The rock-hewn church of Mikael Barka can be reached after 18 km drive up the escarpment of the Atsbidera highland plateau east of the town of Wukro. This church is carved from the top of an isolated and roughly round, rock hill. From the top of the hill, one can enjoy a commanding view of the mountain of Tserae and the valley of Womberta to the southeast.
The church has a built facade, which, according to the chief priest, was built in 1967. Two entrances lead from the anteroom to the sanctuary.
It is a three aisled and three bayed square church, 9m wide and 9m deep. It has twelve columns, four of them freestanding and cruciform in design. The bracket capitals are at different heights and the domes and altars are skillfully executed. The ceiling is decorated with a variety of patterns in relief.
Mikael Barka is not known for its wealth of paintings, but one can see murals depicting Saint Mikael. There are also faded murals visible on several columns. Tradition has it that the church was burnt by Queen Judith in the tenth century. According to oral tradition, the edifice is believed to have been sculpted in the 6th century under the auspices of Abune Abraham, an Ethiopian saint. However, David Buxton thinks that the correct date could be the 13th or 14th century.
Mikael Imba Church
Mikael Imba is of similar design as Abraha Atsbeha and Wukro Cherkos. With an interior area of 140 square meters, the church is perhaps the most spacious of all the rock churches in Tigrai. The top of the pillars are graced with stepped capitals, the ceiling is meticulously decorated with intricate patterns. Incised in relief, a large Greek cross adorns the ceiling. In terms of decoration and finishing, the church is second to none. According to Dr. Twelde Medhin Yosef, the pioneer in the study of the rock churches of Tigrai, Mikael Imba is “an artistically finished church.” It can be found 15km south of Atsbi or 23km from Agulae.
Debre Selam Mikael Church
Mikael Debre Selam is undoubtedly one of the finest churches in its architectural design. It is a church within a cave or, as Ivy Pearce referred to it, “a church within a church”. The central door leads in to the anteroom with three huge built columns, a beautiful freestanding arch and striking Aksumite “Sandwich Style” constructions (a layer of wood then a layer of stone, painted alternating in black and white). The woodwork of the door and window shutters is exquisitely decorated in geometrical patterns including swastika-like symbols. Especially the middle window shutter is decorated with a 15th century wooden painting of the Virgin Mary and the Child. The ends of the protruding part of the wooden beams are round in shape and their presence adds beauty to the church. It is also known for its wealth of paintings, which can be seen on the walls and arches of the sanctuary, if one asks the priests specifically for it (bring a torch!). The art influence, according to Pearce, is Byzantine. It can be accessed by a 9 km gravel road northeast of Atsbi plus a
The white sandstone escarpment that runs south – north between Frewoini and Wukro and parallel to the road is, called the Tsaeda Imba meaning “white mountain”. The rocky scenic area is the home of one of the highly sacred places in the region.
If you are staying in Mekelle, the distance involved in arriving to the start of your walk are as follows: from Mekelle to Wukro is 47 km, and from Wukro to your start – point is 25 km, 72 km asphalt road all in all. The site consists of three old churches and a new one, each very different and all within 2km of each other.
Medhane Alem at Adi Kesho
Medhane Alem Adi Kesho is one of Tigrai’s oldest and finest rock-hewn churches estimated to date from the 10th or early 11th century. An unusual feature is the beautifully decorated narthex connecting the northern and southern ends of the church. Two doors lead to the interior of the church where the ceiling is supported by six huge square pillars. The ceiling is decorated with reliefs and geometrical patterns. Because of its immense height and massive pillars, this church resembles a cathedral. There are engravings on the walls and a croix patêe on the right side of the back wall.
The most striking feature of this church is to be found in the recessed ceiling just after entering the left hand door way. Aksumite friezes approximately half a meter in height, decorate three sides of the recess.
Forming the dome of the recess is a beautiful, circular, shallow relief carved from the sandstone rock. Many bands of intricate circular patterns radiate out from an enclosed Greek cross at the center of the relief, the whole design resembling the decorated Tigraian circular bread loaf, the Himbasha. You can reach there after 15 minute drive from Medhani Adi Kesho and 5 minute drive from Petros Wepaulos
Petros Wepaulos (Petros Teftsame Semaet)
In the same area is another church, Petros Tefetsme Semaet, which lies on the cliff side of the escarpment, 2740 above sea level. It is visible from the main road because of the White-washed façade. It is on the top of a bluff, reached by carefully climbing a rickety ladder and platforms placed against the cliff side.
Partially built of wood, stone and mortar, and partly a cave it boasts some fascinatingly primitive paintings. To some historians, these paintings have originality and liveliness often missing in other early period paintings of Ethiopia. Paul Henz, in his book Ethiopian Journeys, describe them, “… among the most interesting early paintings I saw anywhere in Ethiopia.”
The church has not been used for several years because it is difficult to reach. However, it will always be remembered for its difficulty ascent, ancient paintings and, of course, for the courage of ‘Haleka Halefom Retta, Tigrai’s last rock hewer! He takes pride in his being able to provide the local faithful with very easily accessible replacement church.
Adigrat, the capital of eastern zone of Tigrai, is located at the junction of the Mekelle-Zalanbesa and Mekelle-Aksum roads. It is also renowned for the quality of its t’ej, a type of mead or honey wine. The town also offers a good base from which to explore some of the northern rock-hewn churches of Tigrai. The busy market is definitely worth visiting. It’s good place to buy Tigraian coffee pots and local cloths as well as the nationally renowned pale honey that comes from Alitena and the Beles (picky pears), which are deliciously refreshing.
Chirkos church lies in the center of the town, whose interior is covered in fine 19th century paintings depicting Angeles. The large dome in the city skyline belongs to the Holy Savior Catholic Cathedral completed in 1961. It is Italian in design with a distinctive Ethiopian flavor; look out for the paintings by famous Ethiopian painter Afewerk Tekle. There is also an Italian war Cemetery 4Km east of the town at the village of Gola’a. It commemorates some 765 Italian soldiers, many of them caduti ignoti (the unknown fallen) of the wars of 1935-38.
Traveling south from Adigrat, look out for the attractive Tigraian stone farm steads with their dry-stone walls.
A high-standard tourist lodge is opened in the vicinity of Adigrat at Agoro, about 4 km down the Adigrat – Mekelle road, located on a flat – topped hill with appealing surroundings.
Day trips from Adigrat
Adigrat would serve as a good base for exploring some of the rock-hewn churches described below.
Maryam Qiat Church
Maryam Qiat, one of the finest churches found in Tigrai, is adorned with various geometric patterns. A single finely carved wooden door brings one to the interior where many ornaments can be seen. The structure, spherical in plan, holds six free standing and six pillars fused with the wall. Unlike many other churches, the exclusive columns lean inward to form arches, an architectural fashion which allows the structure to consist of three aisles, each arched at 3 intervals, quite reminiscent of medieval European church architecture. Many carvings can be found in the church, as well as a Sabean inscription in the roof of the Holy of Holies. Faded, ancient paintings adorn some of the walls, whereas two of the pillars are decorated with old painted linen. The church can be reached by either 36km of local road and 30 minute climb on foot from Hawzien or 30 km of gravel road from Adigrat.
Maryam Bahra Church
This church is a combination of stone built and rock hewn. However smaller in size, the hewn structure like many of its kind encompasses four free and six non-free-standing columns. The individual pillars, finely patterned at their lower parts, are painted with life sized portraits of the Apostles. It is situated north east of Hawzien, after 26km of gravel road plus a 20 minute walk.
Maryam Bezuhan Church
This church is half cave and half hewn. The hewn part has two cells, each with their own decoration. The front part has a ceiling marked by large rectangle-shaped design embracing other similar patterns. It also bears large and small circular carvings united together as well as a group of square shaped ornaments. Moreover, the chamber where the Tabot resides is accurately carved to have an oval-shaped feature. Its ceiling is decorated with a carefully incised dome. Drive 24 km of local road plus 20 minutes’ walk from Hawzien.
Located 25km northeast of Hawzien, at 2500m, this church is reached after a 20 minutes ascending walk. The set of the church allows one to view a vast field lying below. The church is completely hewn from a living block of rock soaring high. It is embellished with various decorative designs. The chapel has a high ceiling and large interior which consist of 4 free standing and six non free standing pillars. All of the columns are vaulted in a manner to support the ceiling.
The church is beautiful enough to arouse excitation. The ceiling in the middle is exactly executed to have a cylinder – shaped features. It is also adorned with swastika incisions. The room where the tablet dwells has a dome-like roof. Eyesus Gwahegot, in addition to many expressive religious materials alike that of Debretsion of Gheralta, has old and new ceremonial fun carrying the portraits of apostles, saints and angles.
The Monastery of Gunda Gundo
The monastery of Gunda Gundo is one of the oldest and most famous monasteries of Ethiopia. It was founded by Stephanites in the 14th century. It has maintained ecumenical traditions and maintains good relations with Muslims who inhabit the nearby lowlands as well as with the Catholic center in Adigrat. Its immense church is one of the largest ancient buildings in northern Ethiopia. Gunda Gundo has a large library of rare manuscripts, including famous Gospels with distinctive illuminations in what is known to art historians as “Gunda Gundo style”. In earlier years it is believed to have had a scriptorium which supplied manuscripts to other churches and monasteries. Among historic objects in their church, priests show a large bed that belonged to Sebagadis.
To reach the monastery, follow the signpost at the north side of Edaga Hamus. Continue 24Km along the road suitable for 4 WD vehicle to north east of Edaga Hamus that leads to Geblen, a village situated on the edge of the escarpment. From this location walk roughly 4-5 hours along a steep track that drops into a gorge below and continue its sunken path to the isolated historic site. The landscape on the way to the monastery is very spectacular. This two day trip is more than worth it if you like history, wild life and beautiful landscapes. However, it must be advised that female visitors are not allowed inside the main church.
GHERALTA – THE HOME OF ROCK – HEWN CHURCHES
The drive through the Gheralta cluster is fantastic, particularly between the villages of Dugem and Megab, with stratified mountains and sharp peaks rising like Aksumite stelae from the plains. This range, which rises abruptly almost perpendicularly above the Hawzien plain offers some of the most spectacular views in Tigrai. George Grester, the Swiss photographer, in the book “churches in rock’ writes, “ Gheralta with its ‘western film’ scenery of mountains seems to be a kind of Ethiopia Arizona”. Trevor Cole, one of the European tourists to visit the site, in his part gives account of his visit:
“I have been to the area three times and as a reflection of the beauty of the area, the unique churches and the inimitable service in the lodge I would have no hesitation in going back time and again.”
How nature is generous, wonderful, merciful, mysterious and beautiful is witnessed at the scenic beauty of the Gheralta Mountains.
HAWZIEN AND ITS OUTSKIRTS
The historical town of Hawzien is located north – west of Wukro. The town is base to visit the famous rock – hewn churches of Gheralta. Although every rock church in Gheralta deserves a visit, only some of them are presented in birds – eye – view, taking Hawzien as springboard.
Hawzien – Saint Tekle Haimanot Church
The church is a union of a rock-hewn and stone built. The chiseled structure, however small in size, is fascinating enough to take attention. The chamber holds six free standing and six more pillars merged with the rock. The independent columns marked by capital like bosses, are wonderfully executed in a style. The walls manifest a set of rectangle from shallow cuts topped by a sequence of designs fashioned to look like cement made tubes. The chamber left for the tablet has finely carved windows and special ceiling inscribed by a dome and cross- like decoration.
Giyorgis Maikado Church
It is totally carved out and, has spacious interior which displays various expressive designs. It has four free and six more pillars merged with the walls. All columns are in arches. The central ceiling facing the Holy of Holies, trimmed to look like a barrel, better adorns the attraction.
The chapel has two attractive windows which farther ornament the structure. One reveals a cross-featured design while the other one, circular in shape, is decorated with pattern rolled like plastic tubes. The Holy of Holies, well ordered, has its walls carry a series of rectangle and cross-shaped depthless cuts. More important is the rock cut menebere tabot which is used to keep the tabot. Such features are uncommon. It can be reached about 4km after Hawzen and off the Hawzien – Nebelet road.
Abune Yemata (Guh) – Where Tourists Sense Wonder!
5 km west of Megab, there is a church, which does deserve special mention – Abune Yemata. This church requires almost vertical ascent. It does not take long to get there from the base and the visitor walks past ancient olive trees, small farmsteads and is then faced with a choice. To climb or not to climb up! Parts of the ascent are vertical for about 5 metres and there is no room for error. There are no ladders, no ropes and no hope if you fall. And yet there is a motivating force, which drives you on wards and upwards. When you are close to the entrance and you have succeeded in dealing with vertically you are faced with taking off your shoes and climbing over a bridge of rock with foot holds and hand grips in the rock face.
On top of that, to get to the church entrance, there is a narrow ledge with an abyss below, which almost teases and entices you to look over and follow some primeval instinct to jump. Ivy Pearce, one of the first few westerners to visit the site, gives account of her visit.
I climbed up some pretty stiff stuff and then came face to face with a cliff face with only footholds and handgrips at irregular intervals. This climb I could not manage, as my arms were not long enough to reach the next handgrip to let my foot go to find the next foot-grip. Furthermore, the handgrips were too wide to grasp firmly with my small hands. I didn’t want to take risk, so gave it up and sat on a small ledge below.
Not many visitors are comfortable to even attempt the scary ascent, although it is extremely rewarding to enjoy the view from above of the sharp drop of the cliff. Ruth plant described the church as “…the most unusual church in the most unusual place, that place being majestic and awesome”. The interior of the church, reached via a small crack in the rock is notable for its extensive and perfectly preserved wall and ceiling frescoes, thought to date from the 15th century and regarded by Plant as “the most sophisticated frescoes found in Tigrai”. It is surprising that such great works of art existed for centuries in such unusual place which seems rather closer to the moon than to the earth, or so it seems, a refuge from the rigorous of life on the plains below.
Abune Gebre Mikael, Koraro
The Megab – Koraro road skirts the western foot side of Gheralta accompanied by various landscapes. The escarpment that overlays the settlement in the east is marked by pyramid–shaped stony hills of which one safeguards Abune Gebre Mikael, one of the best-preserved churches of the mountains. Considered one of the best and finest churches in Gherealta, this church’s cruciform plan is hewn beautifully into a dome-like rock. It features vibrant frescoes and carefully carved columns, pillars, cupolas and arches. The church can be reached after driving 23 km of local road from Megab or 18km from the departure of Abune Yemata (Guh) and after a sometimes demanding climb up a chimney in the mountain.
Debre Maryam Korkor and Abba Daniel Korkor
A favourite with photographers and documentary filmmakers, the twin churches of Maryam and Daniel Korkor will take your breath away!
Debre Maryam Korkor is a rock hewn-church on one of the high mountains of Gheralta just overlooking the village of Megab. The scenic climb up the mountain is not short but manageable (about 1 hour of reasonably steep mountain hiking) and offers stunning panoramic views of the Hawzien plain and the surrounding mountains. At the plateau on top of the Mountain, one of the biggest and most complex rock-hewn churches of Tigrai awaits the visitor.
Maryam Korkor has three aisles and was hewn five bays deep into the mountain to the sanctuary entrance. Architecturally, it is one of the more complex structures, with many columns of interesting shapes and three cupolas spanning the five bays with Aksumite detailing. The layout follows a cruciform plan and there are numerous paintings on the walls and columns, some faded, and in different styles. The priest with a chalice on one of the pillars is thought by one commentator to be Melchizedek, the martyr priest. On the blind arch there are scenes from early paradise with Eve and the serpent, and frescoes of many animals, including birds, gazelles and even a pig, can be found all over the walls of the church.
A short but breathtaking walk on to a rock ledge facing east – just wide enough to prevent vertigo, but still extraordinary enough to make one speechless, the entrance to Abba Daniel Korkor is hidden. A very small door in the cliff face leads to this small church with only two rooms. The ceiling of the domed anteroom is decorated with well-preserved paintings. In this remote place, 500m above the plain, with its stunning views of the mountains of Gheralta as well as the Hawzien plain, it is easy to understand why Abba Tesfay, the local monk guarding the twin churches, believes he is closer to heaven here than he could be anywhere else on the planet.
Degum Selassie Church
The site of Degum is an important chapter of Ethiopia architecture. It is the only site displaying in a single area three sanctuaries, a baptistery and a crypt-tomb, all of them copying accurately in the rock the ancient Aksumite architecture. The tomb is a rock-hewn duplicate of the tombs built in the underground of Aksum. The design of the baptistery follows the pattern of the Mediterranean baptisteries built from the 4th C onwards. In the neighboring Nubian such baptisteries have been built up to the 10th century. Many remains of Aksumite ceramics have been collected on the site (and deposited at Addis Ababa museum in 1971). It is not possible to date a precise duration for the site, but it could be tentatively dated from the 7th till the 10th C. It is on the southern edge of the village off the road.
Mariam Papaseiti Church
It is completely hidden by heavy tropical vegetation including date palms- a very pleasant situation. The exterior is by no means an impressive structure. The church sanctuary is rock-hewn. The narthex is built against the rock where the paintings, which have been executed on cloth, are located. The most remarkable attraction of this church is its graphic murals which tell both old and New Testament stories most vividly. They can be dated because of the donors – Bashay Dengeze and his wife Emebiet Hirut, who are depicted below the two paintings of the virgin. Bashay Dengeze was the governor of the district during the time of Ras Wolda Sellassie (1788 – 1866), who encouraged commerce and was to receive the first British mission to Ethiopia in 1804. It can be accessible after 20 minutes’ drive with local road and 20 minutes gentle walk west of Degum.
Abune Abraham Debre Tsion
A few km after Degum, the gravel road turns west to come to a table mountain whose top houses the church of Debre Tsion. It is architecturally most outstanding and entirely hewn from living rock. Inside this church the back walls of the holy of holies, the domes, pillars and wall panels are all abundantly decorated with fine paintings of Saints and Apostles. Especially the dome is beautifully adorned with patterns. A hidden, half-moon shaped walkway is carved around the church into the rock, leading to a dome-like chamber decorated with many geometrical designs and carvings in bas-relief depicting Angels and Saints. Furthermore, this monument of great workmanship also possesses a well-preserved, beautiful 15th century circular ceremonial fan painted on vellum. The church is situated close to Degum, and accessed via a reasonably steep footpath up the mountain, roughly 45 minutes hike in average.
This church is rectangular in shape and has six free-standing pillars which curve to meet each other and thereby support a ceiling carved with geometrical designs. The church contains many early paintings which are thought to be at least 300 years old, and are very different in style to any other church paintings found in Gheralta. The walls of the building are dressed with murals of saints and apostles; it is the intense atmosphere that most visitors remember. The relic is reached from the village of Metari, about 1km south of Degum. It is continued by a steep footpath, roughly 40 minutes hike on average.