Tigrai rock hewn churches up cliffs and four middle aged ladies

Abuma Yemata Guh, Tigrai, north east Ethiopia

We had read about this little church near Hawzien enclosed in this huge perpendicular rock which had been hacked into some five hundred years ago to house this little gem. We had also read accounts of the hazardous and hair raising climb to reach it. No ropes, no chains, no harness. Just sheer rock face and clinging fingers.

Our first view of Abuma Yemata Guh

Our first view of Abuma Yemata Guh

trekking towards rock pillar

trekking towards rock pillar

Ticket man

Ticket man

making our way up

No one knows why these churches in many nigh on inaccessible places throughout Tigrai, in north eastern Ethiopia, were carved into the rocks. Philip Briggs from the Bradt guide conjectures that it might be for the sake of security , or isolation, or simply because ‚cliff faces are inherently good places to carve churches‘.

A fifty minute walk from where we left the car, we made our way across some scrub land and upwards towards the base of the rock pillar, paying our 100 birr per person as entrance fee along the way (not including the huge obligatory guide fee), pulled off our shoes and socks, and began the climb.

Yes, the wall was pretty vertical for up to ten metres, but with many natural holds and bits of rock to grip on and I can’t say I felt any undue panic as I clambered up rather inelegantly until reaching a safer perch.

base of rock pillar

base of rock pillar

priest

priest

The guide and a few ‚scouts‘ who appeared from nowhere were more than eager to offer a lending hand.

My ambition at this stage was to be able to feel I had climbed up to that church with no help, and with a mixture of trepidation and doggedness, not to mention sweat and tears, I made it.

At the top there is a fairly narrow ledge which leads for about five metres to the entrance to the church. It is about 50 cms wide and while there is the rock face to hold onto on your right, on the left is an unprotected 200 metre drop. This was a bit scary, though in general I wouldn’t call it dangerous. Though that is a claim that at least one of my companions would argue with I am sure…

climbing up towards base of pillar

rock face

rock face close up

on cliff face

on cliff face

on rock wall at last

view from church entrance

view from church entrance

waiting to unlock church door

waiting to unlock church door

15th c mural of nine apostles

15th c mural of nine apostles

The inside of the little church, which the elderly priest (who climbed up with us) opened for us contained some precious old murals and a beautiful ancient bible. The hermit-like atmosphere of seclusion and peace within was, in our minds, only disturbed by the knowledge that we would have to be making our precarious way down that cliff face soon.

Needless to say, there were a few moments of apprehension, but we got down in one piece. As did our driver for the first time, much to his and everyone’s excitement. In fact, when I look at the photos now of our feat, I realise it does look quite impressive and I am not sure I would have the gumption to do it again.

After visiting one more church in the area, we lazed away the afternoon at the very pleasant Gheralta Lodge nearby.

at entrance to church

at entrance to church, with a 200 metre drop behind…

ledge leading to church entrance

ledge leading to church entrance

three apostles

three apostles

ancient bible

ancient bible

lectern and walking stick

lectern and walking stick

view from entrance to church

view from entrance to church

climbing down made climbing up look easy

climbing down made climbing up look easy

easy does it...

easy does it….

I took this photo looking down while standing on that little 'ledge'

I took this photo looking down while standing on that little ‘perch’

My friends who were already safe on firm ground below were telling me to stop playing around (re photo above) and to put my camera away and get the hell down (or words to that effect in Polish)

after our climb

after our climb

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4 Comments

Filed under Ethiopia, Travel

4 responses to “Tigrai rock hewn churches up cliffs and four middle aged ladies

  1. ania Regan Olsen

    very striking photos. I particularly like the one of the priest (?) taken from the back, leaning against a wall facing the beautiful murals, slightly hazy and very kind of secretive
    The ‘close rock face” one actually gave me a butterflies in the stomach feeling like I used to get, back in the old days, the day before going back to school after the holidays..
    The ticket man photo would be great for the National Geographic photo competition, give it a try please, you also have great photos taken in Burma and Namibia (v good ones there).

  2. Thank you:) the photo of the priest is not supposed to be blurred but it just came out that way, rendering the image even more atmospheric.

  3. Ania Z.

    Proud of my mom!

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