Ethiopia: Cliff Churches of Tigray
November 6, 2007 – Gheralta Lodge, Hawzien
Unprecedented day. Woke up in Hawzien and had breakfast, and went to the cluster office. Then seven of us headed off in a car to Koraro, one of the Millennium Villages. The night before I had been reading about the rock churches of Tigray, but when I had asked about going there, the tour guide from the Gheralta lodge already had a trip booked with some French Canadians. But he told me to go to the town of Megab, and ask for Tewolde, a local guide. As we were driving to Koraro, we were headed towards the massive rock formation, Gheralta.
As luck would have it, we passed through Megab. We asked around and sure enough, Tewolde, appeared. I felt bad as I wanted to go to Koraro with Jess and the team, but this opportunity was too good to pass up. Tewolde and I set off, walking through the village of Megab and the surrounding countryside. It was nice to be on foot. Tewolde was not too talkative and his English wasn't great. I asked some questions, but he usually just answered yes or with an affirmative nod. The churches of Tigray were actually written up in a recent NY Times article I was reading right before I left (would find the link, but no internet). The churches in this region were put in really hard to get to places to protect them from those (Jews and Muslims) that wanted to destroy them. According to my guide, these churches dated back to 3rd century A.D., though elsewhere it said they dated to 4 A.D. to 9 A.D.
My guide Tewolde had a cross etched into his forehead, as do a lot of men in these parts. When he was young, he had a bad eye, and he went to the medicine man, and this was the cure, to carve a cross in his forehead. Other people had slashes to the sides of their eyes, or hatch marks carved into their eyebrows, or the women have tattoos of crosses on their foreheads. We passed a monk in a white robe coming off the mountain. Tewolde kissed a wood cross the monk held out to him and they talked for a while.
We headed up, past farms and goats and cows and piles of teff and barley. We wound into this narrow steep gulch. Tewolde walked fast and was surprised I was keeping up. It felt like my old climbing days in Arizona, doing a long approach to a climb. Even the terrain was similar to Arizona, lots of acacia and cactus mixed with chaparral type plants as we got higher. The rock itself reminded me of Red Rocks, just outside of Las Vegas, striated red pocketed limestone.
We managed to go up the vertical rock by winding our way around and zigzagging up ledges. In the steeper spots, hand and foothold had been carved or worn into the rock. After some 800 meters of ascending (from 2,000 to 2,800 meters), we go to the top.
The first church we came across was Mariam Korkor (St. Mary's). A white church with a facade built into the cliff face. Tewolde called for the monk who lived nearby with his wife. Each church has a monk that cares for the church. I had to pay each monk 50 birr (5 or 6 USD) to go into the church.
The monk opened up the church. We took of our shoes and entered. The inside was completely carved out of the rock (soft limestone), with columns in the middle and petroglyphic paintings covering every wall and ceiling, though it was dark so hard to see.
After Mariam Korkor, we wound around on this narrow ledge out onto a sheer cliff-face to Daniel Korkor (St. Daniel). The monk for this church was the one we saw coming down off the mountain, so Tewolde had already arranged for the key. We crawled through the tiny door and in. This was one was not as big, but had two separate chambers, each adorned with intricate paintings. The monk from Mariam Korkor had tagged along and would pipe in about the mural interpretations, which Tewolde translated.
When we got through with this one, Tewolde looked at his watch and it was 11 a.m. We had started around 9 a.m. Tewolde was shocked as with most tourists this was an all-day affair. He asked me if I wanted to see another church. Off in the distance was a rock spire jutting out of the landscape that supposedly had a church (Abuna Yemata Guh) half way up it.
There was no trail getting directly there, so we bushwhacked and climbed through boulder fields. Didn't see anyone except the occasional monk. Saw some rock hyraxes, these marmot looking creatures that scurried into the rocks after making loud warning calls. I remembered reading about these rock hyraxes, whose closest relative is the elephant. I wasn't fast enough to get a picture. Evidently, baboons were common, but we didn't see any, just furry baboon shit from them eating small animals.
We had noticed another group already at the church so were hurrying to intercept them. We found their shoes at the base. The four French tourists from back at the hotel. They had a whole entourage in tow, a guide, a driver, the monk and 4 kids that could climb the rocks like monkeys.
When we got to the rock spire and started going up is where things started to get dicey in spots. There were handholds carved in the rock, and you had to follow a particular sequence of moves to get up. Felt just like climbing in Red Rocks. But the reward was even better. This church was halfway up the spire on the other side. Each church had a unique painting style. Yemata was the most elaborate.
Climbed back down to the base and the French took a long lunch and smoked cigarettes while Tewolde and I hung out with the kids, who went off to gather pheasant eggs. Finally, we headed down, through this village of farms, more goats, cows, sheep and rock fences and domes of teff hay.
Got a ride back to Megab. From there the French tourists went off with Tewolde to do the first two rock churches. The driver wanted 100 birr to drive back to the Gheralta, so I opted to walk. It was a 13 KM walk, past farms of millet, sorghum, teff (Ethiopian grain they use for injera), wheat, maize and barley. Met a boy, Tesfaye, who was reading a book while he was tending his cows and sheep. It was a 6th grade geography book in English. His English was better than the ninth graders I met the day before so more believable that he was actually understanding what he was reading and writing.
I also caught up to these six boys that were carrying sacks of cow shit. I got a good laugh out of them when I started carrying one of their bags for them. I was pretty beat by the time I got to the Gheralta lodge. Here's a video of the adventure...
(c) 2007 Derek White & Jessica Fanzo