By Joey Tyson
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.
Feet 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 Twister:
“Left foot here! Right hand there! No, this right, not that one!”
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 years.
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.