Eagles, Edges and Edifices: Touching the Heavens in Tigray, Ethiopia

Eagles, Edges and Edifices: Touching the Heavens in Tigray, Ethiopia

Visiting the country’s Orthodox Christian churches carved into cliff faces soaring more than 2,000m above sea level is an epiphanic experience – even for a non-believer.

bare, belly pressed against a slab of rock, I inch my way
along the ledge. The grainy surface feels oddly reassuring, given
that beyond its edge lurks a sheer 200m drop. Across the gorge, a
row of flat-topped cliffs rise abruptly like a set of colossal
teeth; a lone eagle hovers lazily above the void. The next careful
steps lead into a small cave, a locked wooden door improbably
etched in the cliff side – we have beaten the priest to his church.
“He’s on his way,” explains Zelasie, our guide. By that, he means
that the man with the key is currently clambering up a vertical
wall of stone, as we had moments earlier.

At the base of the wall we’d stood perplexed as we were told to
remove our shoes in respect. A group of men sat idle in its shade.
Above, only an ever-expanding tower of sandstone. To the untrained
eye, this looked like a dead end. To the waiting scouts on hand to
help us climb, it’s a sort of rustic ladder, pocked and marked by
centuries of the climbing devout. In a moment of Free Solo-inspired
madness, I’d turned down the rope harness on offer, opting to go it
alone – well, not quite alone. As the scouts pointed out the best
hand and foot holds, climbing became a vertical game of

“Left foot here! Right hand there! No, this right, not that

Upwards four-and-a-half metres and one dizzying ledge walk
later, a simple padlock remains the last obstacle to Abuna Yemata
Guh, the church cut straight into a cliff face. It’s one of around
120 in Tigray, Ethiopia. A mountainous expanse of bare, razor-edged
peaks jutting from flat plains of arid desert-like scrubland, the
country’s most northerly region is shrouded in myth and legend,
none more captivating than its bizarre rock-hewn churches. Here in
the jagged Gheralta massif there are 30 or so. Carved into solid
rock, hidden atop mountains and hollowed out of vertiginous cliff
sides, they’re some of the most obscure and hard-to-reach places of
worship on earth. Despite this, the churches are still very much in
use, serving the local community as they have done for hundreds of

Ethiopia’s unique brand of Orthodox Christianity took hold in
Tigray in the 4th century, when King Ezana of Axum became the first
monarch to embrace it. By local estimations, the churches of Tigray
aren’t much younger, dating back as far as the 5th century. The
history surrounding them is hazy at best with little known about
why they are so improbably placed, carved out of the sides of
mountains. One theory is to escape destruction: while current-day
Ethiopian Christians and Muslims get along peacefully, they didn’t
always. Back in the Middle Ages, inter-religious tension could
easily boil over into the razing of a church.

But these impractical locations weren’t solely for practical
reasons. At least some of the reasoning, according to Zelasie, was
good, old-fashioned biblical sadism. Getting there is part of the
test, he tells me, one only the truly devout (and a few crazy
“ferenjis” – Ethiopians’ word for foreigners) pass. As we wait for
the priest, and my heart rate drops back to its normal,
non-petrified rhythm, Zelasie explains that going to church is a
regular part of the weekly routine in Tigray. The local flock will
scale its 4.5m wall, shuffling across its perilous ledge without a
second thought. Even new mothers, newborns tightly swaddled on
their backs, make the climb to baptise their babies.

Zelasie is something of a regular at Abuna Yemata Guh; he was
here a few weeks ago for a special mass in celebration of the
church. More than 100 people made the precarious climb to worship,
he says. I try to imagine that many people, teetering on boulders,
perched on these narrow ledges, gathered in prayer 2,580m above sea
level. The thought alone makes my stomach drop like a faulty

Eventually, a young man arrives on the ledge. He’s shrouded in a
robe, dove-white – the colour of happiness in
– and, despite the ascent, looks calmer than a sloth
on Valium. With a small nod of hello, he unlocks the door and
beckons us inside. It’s dark in the church, the only light coming
from a hazy shaft of sun streaming through the entrance. As my eyes
adjust, I ask about the young man’s age – in his early 20s, surely
this is the youngest priest in Ethiopia.

“This is the priest’s son, Atsbha,” explains Zelasie. A young
deacon – a priest in training – he’s been entrusted with the church
key as the priest himself is running late. Inside, the church is
simple, a small cave with carpeted floors and painted murals
covering its roof. With no wind, rain or sun exposure, the images
on the ceiling have been perfectly preserved. Like a biblical comic
book, the stories of Christianity plaster the roof – depictions of
the Nine Saints who helped spread the religion through Ethiopia in
the 5th century, the 12 Apostles, and Abuna Yemata, the church’s

We’re alone: a rare treat, I’m told. The young deacon picks up
an ancient leather-bound bible, opening it for us to look at.
Beautifully vivid images cover the pages: priests and saints,
oval-eyed and depicted in inks of red, yellow, and blue. “When I
come here, I lose everything. I feel free. It’s not like anywhere
else. It is a special place,” says Atsbha, leafing through the
pages, now jaundiced and greasy with age. I have to agree, even as
a non-believer something eerily ethereal hangs heavy in the air.
His wide eyes are glassy as he tells of his plan to dedicate his
life to the church and the community, just as his father has. We
leave Atsbha contemplating his future and begin our trek to another
nearby church.

We visit Maryam Korkor, a monastery church devoted to the Virgin
Mary. The hike is a punishing two-hour scramble over boulders and
through narrow rock passages. Less vertiginous but no less
demanding than the trek to the previous church, at points we’re
surrounded by nothing but rubble and stone, no trace of a route,
until Zelasie points out the next “path”. In the distance, we see
the cliffs of Abuna Yemata Guh – a series of sandstone pinnacles,
the tallest pointing skywards like a gargantuan finger.

The church sits atop a mountain plateau surrounded by a serene
garden of menorah-shaped giant cacti. When we arrive, sweaty and
bedraggled, the resident monk is sitting alone beneath the vaulted
arches of the church, cocooned in a brilliant canary-yellow robe, a
crucifix clutched in his hands. A large tour group has just left
and a quiet cool, peace fills the space. Maryam Korkor is
semi-monolithic: a half-building, fixed onto a cave, carved from
the mountain. Four tall, stone pillars stand at its centre.

For more than 70 years the monk has called this place home, 400
breath-stealing metres of ascent away from the rest of the world.
Even here, other priests and deacons regularly seek out his
council. The remote location, 2,400m above sea level, suggests that
this is a place for the devout – the gruelling trek to reach it
certainly feels like a test plucked from the Old Testament – but
Ethiopia’s increasing popularity has led to an influx of
travellers. At first, the monk wasn’t keen on all the attention,
but after the government intervened to make Tigray’s churches
easier to visit, he’s accepted the regular tourist visits. I
suspect he’d rather have the peace, and we leave him alone to pray
before another group arrives.

My feet feel like boulders as we trudge back down to earth. As
the adrenaline wears off, I quickly realise just how shattered I
am. But despite my exhausted legs, my mind is completely clear.
Looking out over Gheralta’s landscape of soaring spires, I wonder
if that’s the reason these churches were built up here, as close to
God as humanly possible.

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