Travel Story

EXPLORING THE ROCK CHURCHES IN TIGRAY
Having previously visited the amazing rock churches at Lalibela, my wife Louise and I were already hooked on the beauty and fascination ofthe architecture,

 

art and religious life of Ethiopia. We knew that in Tigray, some 200 km north of Lalibela, there are over 200 rock churches, many of which are very ancient, but had received very few foreign visitors. We had also heard they were very different, but equally as interesting as Lalibela.
  As we were already living in Ethiopia and Solomon from solomon  was busy taking an Australian friend around the Historic circuit, we arranged to fly up to Mekele, the capital of Tigray and join them. We planned on nine days together and to fly back to Addis Ababa from Axum.
   Solomon picked us up at the airport in Makale where we spent the night and made a rudimentary plan to visit and explore a number of the most spectacularly situated and beautifully painted churches. So we had flexibility to stay where we liked, we purchased some food before leaving town. Usually there is somewhere to stay in most reasonable sized towns, but if stuck we could always camp. Solomon was already fully equipped with tents and all other necessary camping equipment for such an eventuality.
   The next day we set off north on the new tarmac highway from Mekele to Adigrat. After 40 km we stopped in Wukro which is the center of a cluster of churches known as Teka Tesfai. The red and white sandstone mountains and rocky stony fields scattered with hamlets and stone houses superficially reminded us of Arizona and the American desert country.
   It happened that we were in Wukro on 27 September when the Meskal (Finding of the True Cross) Festival was taking place. After finding a basic guesthouse to spend the night, we walked through the back streets to the main church in this dry dusty town where a large gathering of people was rapidly building up. There were many colourfully costumed priests, deacons and nuns assembled with the regalia of church umbrellas and robes adding vibrancy to the scene. There were also a number of lively drummers in the throng. In the centre of the open ground in front of the church there was a tall bonfire with a wooden cross rising out of it. Lighting of this pyre was to be the culmination of the festival.

Meskal Festival in Wukro
  Over the next hour the atmosphere built up to the time of fire lighting. As soon as the fire was lit by the priests the flames exploded up the pyre and we were caught in the rapidly escaping crowd as the intense heat pushed us back. By the time the wooden cross had tumbled into the flames the crowd was dispersing, so we returned to the Land Cruiser and set off out of town to the first church up on a mountain top about 25 Km from Wukro. Mikael Imba church proved a little difficult to find and necessitated a lot of asking as we made our way across the fields and mountains east of Wukro.
   Along the way we stopped to admire beautiful springtime flowers in the meadows alongside the road and the strong stone Tigrayan houses set among the fields. We soon came upon what looked like a party going on at some huts near the roadside. It turned out that it was a celebration by the community for the successful graduation of one of the local students. We stopped and were soon beckoned to join the friendly gathering of a hundred or so. Like other regions of Ethiopia, Tigray has its own unique food. Here it was Tollo, a kind of local fondue. The dough was made into balls and dipped into a fiery red sauce. Not to be daunted we dipped in and enjoyed the inclusiveness of these friendly people.
 Eating Tuhlo with the locals
  On such trips having time and flexibility to interact with the people always proves immensely satisfying. Leaving the party and these friendly folk we picked up a priest who was walking in the right direction towards Mikael Imba. Appreciative of the lift he guided us across the farmland to where the track finished, close to the base of the mountain on which Mikael Imba Rock church was located. We climbed up a series of wooden ladders onto the flat top of this mountain.
   A glorious view opened up across the plateau, green fields and white flat- topped ambas (mountains). The church was impressive, in a pit carved out of the solid rock. We paid a small entry fee to the resident priests and were shown into the interior. It is hard to describe the atmosphere of these churches-a great sense of timelessness going back centuries seems to seep through one’s bones, rendered yet more real by the solemnity of the priests, the grass covered floors and the soaring rock arches rising into the near darkness.
View from Mikael Imba Rock Church
    After overnighting in Wukro we set off west towards the steep and rugged looking mountains of the Gheralta ridge. A number of the most spectacularly situated churches are situated in secret locations high on cliff faces and on secluded hard to reach mountain tops. The churches were excavated in such hidden places to avoid destruction by Muslim invaders led by Ahmed Gragn in the 15th Century.
   Over the next two days we were to visit five churches, all dramatically and spectacularly located on the Gheralta Ridge. All were different in design, atmosphere and in the variety of their frescoed walls. But it was not just the beauty of the paintings on their internal walls, pillars and arches, but the amazing landscape around us which made this place so special. Set among the green fields of the surrounding plain were tall domelike mesas and fingers of red rock protruding into the intense blue sky. At sunset as shadows spread across the plain, the 300 metre high cliffs and outlying mesas glowed an intense red in the late afternoon sun.

Gheralta Landscape with Aloes
   Descending from the mountain top on which one of the churches was located it was already getting dark as we reached the vehicle. We looked quickly for a campsite and soon found a plantation of eucalyptus trees near the roadside where, after asking permission from the nearest household, we set up our tents and cooked an evening meal together. Solomon was very quick and helpful in helping us set up tents. After a short while a young boy emerged from the darkness carrying a large bottle full of talla a local beer made from barley as a gift from the nearby family. People are very hospitable in these parts. Solomon was very good in making friends with people such as these along the way, even though he didn’t speak the local language, Tigrinya.   Next morning after an early wake up we were slowly surrounded by a large number of curious children on their way to school. Our every action and movement was carefully watched giving the impression that tourists don’t stop there very often.
Early morning at Gheralta campsite, near Dugum (with interested student onlookers)
   After packing up camp we traveled through the next small town Dugum set at the base of the Gheralta cliffs. We were bound for one of the most inaccessible and beautiful rock churches about 20 Km further west. Abune Gebre Mikael church was not so easy to find but after a couple of hours of traversing the fields on tiny tracks and one minor incident getting stuck in a sandy river bed, we finally found ourselves at a school not far from the base of the cliffs once more. The school principal sent a young boy to call the priest who kept the key for this church which was located a couple of hours steep walk up the mountain.
   The priest took us to a massive overhanging amphitheatre like cliff with several enormous fig trees clinging to its face around the abundant spring at its base. Climbing a steep gully we emerged at the cliff top then made our way up over the rocks to the church. When we arrived there was no one around. Magically a white horse appeared, and then faded away, seemingly guarding the doorway into the church. The priest opened up for us to reveal the wonders inside. It was a large church carved out of white sandstone which made a good background for the beautiful blue and yellow paintings on the walls, pillars and cupolas in the roof. We spent some time taking photos of this magical church before making our way back down the mountain to the car. That night in Hawzen the local town we reflected on the beauties of Gheralta and its churches White horse guarding the door of Abune Gebre Mikael Rock Church Gheralta
Paintings on pillar of Abune Gebre Mikael, Gheralta
   Over the next few days we were to visit Adigrat, Debre Damo Monastery, Adua and its famous battlefield, the archaeological site of Yeha Temple and finally the stelae and archaeological sites of Axum, before returning to Addis Ababa by plane.

   Throughout this adventurous trip Solomon drove carefully and safely through the mountains, looked out for our welfare, and enquired of the locals for information along the way. He cooked, fixed the car when needed, helped with purchasing food, found wild honey in the local market place and created opportunities for interaction with people and photography along the way. His excellent company and attention to detail in making this trip enjoyable, interesting and fun was exemplary. We enjoyed it immensely.
   Having done a previous trip with him to a number of the better known tourist sights of the country we found this second trip even more enjoyable than the first. Our friend Pam continued on with him after our departure and spent time camping in the Simien Mountains, visiting the Gondar Castles, Lake Tana and its monasteries and the Blue Nile Falls. She enjoyed it so much she came back for a second trip to explore other parts of the country with Solomon as her excellent guide, host and interpreter of all things Ethiopian.

Laurie Scott

Development Worker, UK

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