Whether you travel to Ethiopia for an R&R or to visit a country steeped in history and striking landscapes, you must visit some of the famous rock hewn-churches the country is famed for.
Ethiopia is a country that showcases a unique blend of history and faith, with its fascinating religious sites. Rock-carved churches carved from single blocks of granite, are unique to this country. Although most of them were built in the 4th–13th century period, they are much more than sites of worship. Today, the rock-sculpted churches of Ethiopia ranging from the monolithic (Fully carved out church around the entire church. A monolithic church you can walk around the entire church outside) to semi-monolithic church (Partly carved out, in other words, you cannot walk around the entire church) that are sites of architectural wonder for the tourist.
The most famous rock-hewn churches that most people have heard of are the UNESCO protected churchues in Lalibela. However, another famous and more exhilarating church to visit that should be on your bucket list is the Abuna Yemata Guh in the Tigray region.
Abuna Yemata Guh – the Church that tests your grit
While many of the Tigray churches are dug into the ground or monolithic with roofs at ground level, the church at Abuna Yemata Guh is pure-play rock-hewn. Almost a part of the mountains of the Hawzen Woreda it blends with the vertical rock spire in the rugged mountainside.
With so many ancient rock churches to choose from, the one at Abuna Yemata Guh tests your spiritual rigour as much as physical prowess. The trek up to the church is dangerous and adrenaline-high, testing both your patience and resilience. The church itself is perched dangerously on the cliff-side, with a 200-250 m drop on the sides, making you wonder how families grit it out to visit the church for Sunday services. To reach it, you must scale a sheer wall of rock and inch along a precipitous ledge, all in bare feet because you are on holy ground. Is it any wonder that Abuna Yemata Guh is said to be the world’s least accessible places of worship?
What’s so unique about this ancient rock-hewn church?
The church is located at a height of 2,580 metres, and accessed by scaling a wall of rock and a steep ledge. Although most churches does not require you to visit in bare feet, this church surely requires you to because of its holy ground. Plus, it actually gives you a better group when climbing up the cliff edge. It was constructed in the sixth century by one of the seven saints who came from Europe. These rock churches often had inaccessible sites to protect them from the early adversaries of the Church.
Once you scale the heights to reach the church, you can expect to be taken aback by the carefully preserved wall-paintings on the domes and walls. Although you will come across many rock-art sites across Africa, many of which are UNESCO heritage sites, this church is unique because they do not belong to the Neolithic period but later period. However, the lack of humidity and height has preserved the art very well.
Hike up to the Abuna Yemata Guh church
Unless you are a diehard hiking enthusiast, the Abuna Yemata Guh church is best done with a local guide. You will also be advised to start on the trek early in the morning, as the trek will easily take up at least half of your day. Do not let any accounts about climbing experiences distress you. You have local vanguards at every step of the climb, making sure you know which foothold to take and rock to climb, and helping out with the ropes. Most of the climb is simple, except for the last 7 metre stretch that navigates a sheer cliff face.
The first part of the climb is a half-hour trek up a steep incline, but doable. This is followed by the tough part, inching up the sheer cliff. This draws forth all your rock-climbing and abseiling skills. So take off your shoes and scale the rock barefoot. Use ropes for safety. Step into the harness and clip on the rope. Make sure not to grab any loose stones or bushes. Do not hesitate to take the assistance and helping hand of the vanguards, though do note that they will expect you to give a good tip on your way down again.
Once your reach the top your first reactions will be the highs of scaling the tough climb, and relief on reaching a flat rock although it is only a 50 cm wide ledge. The views of the surrounding landscape are amazing, but the height may equally be frightening, pushing you onwards to the church.
Climb over rocks and scramble up the wall until you arrive at a narrow ledge with a sheer drop that you are told is the entrance of the church! While you experience the thrill of having done it, the steep drop is frightening enough to make you dive into the dug-out hole in the cliff surface. You have finally entered the church.
The rock-art frescoes on the church walls leave you with a sense of wonder and humility. How could the priests take this tough climb and cut out a place of worship and create frescoes centuries ago?
The church priest greets you with stories of other believers who have navigated the cliff to attend services and even undertake rituals and even up until today the church is active with church goers venturing up the cliffs several times a week incl. mothers with their children on their back. Both the cupolas have paintings that tell stories from the Bible.To get a sense of the climb it requires to visit this church, watch this video.
Your climb maybe more a feat of adventure than spirituality, but the boldness of spirit and endurance of this centuries-old church will leave you with a sense of humility and grace. If you want to know more about other top rock-hewn churches to visit in Ethiopia, read more here: Top 10 Rock-Hewn Churches to Visit in Ethiopia.