The Rock-Hewn Church of Abuna Yemata Guh
You are more afraid than you have been in a long time. It is a guttural fear that churns your stomach, and focuses your mind. Your finger tips and palms are sweating, and you can feel the desert heat rising-up the rock face in front of you. The sweat on your hands melts the sandstone you are gripping back into little granules causing your hands to slowly slip from the small holds on the cliff face. Leaning into the rock, you let go with one hand to dry the other on your pants. You are desperate to keep moving upwards, but stuck trying to decipher Amharic instructions from your guide about your next move.
You are barefoot to better feel the rock, because the cliff is so steep you cannot see your next move. Sometimes you have to move laterally across the face, while other moves require you to reach far above your head for a small indentation hidden in the cliff. After each move, you feel along the rock face with feet and hands for the next hold, while your guide makes sounds to tell you when you are getting close.
A couple times you turn around to look him in the eyes for confirmation as you cannot believe the next move requires you to hop one foot out of a hold and the other one into it before falling off the face of the cliff. The climbing route was purposefully designed to be hidden, as at the top of the sandstone pinnacle, in the middle of the Tigray desert, is one of the most magical monasteries ever built – Abuna Yemata Guh.
As you climb higher, you see falcons nesting in the rock, and pass a cave full of human bones. Then, nearing the top, you hoist yourself up onto a large boulder, and face your final challenge. It is a meter and a half wide stone catwalk leading to a small hole hidden in the cliff face. That is the entrance to the monastery. The best way forward is to just go without thinking about it.
According to legend, a holy man named Abuna Yemata came from Axum in the sixth century and hallowed out the monastery in the vertical rock needles of Guh. He aspired to build it high, to be closer to Heaven, in a quiet place where people could meditate. He also hid it so it would be hard to destroy, and people could take refuge there, which they have during many of the oppressive times in Ethiopian history.
Ducking down into the small entrance carved into the stone, I heard singing inside. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I was immediately humbled to see 25 men, women and children from the local village of Hawzen praying together. The rock-hewn church is basically a cave, but it is adorned with ancient paintings. A black Virgin Mary holding a black baby Jesus immediately caught my eye, and then I saw Abraham, Issac, Jacob, and Noah with his two sons. It was incredible to witness this ancient sanctuary still being used a thousand years after it was built, and our guide told us that the villagers learn to climb up the cliffs as children, and return frequently.
Once the worshippers left, the priest brought out an ancient goat-skinned Bible written in Geez, and flipped through some pages with us. The paintings on the lower parts of the walls in the monastery have been worn away by hundreds of years of worship, but those gazing down from the ceiling are still bright as if recently painted. They look like the pictures in the ancient goat-skinned Bible, and you feel as though you have momentarily stepped into a scene from the Old Testament.
Debre Damo and Debra Maryam Qorqor Rock-Hewn Churches
Driving through the vast deserts of Tigray there are many other rock-hewn churches hidden in sandstone pinnacles, and it is worth taking the time to explore them further. While the visit to Abuna Yemata Guh was the highlight of our trip in Tigray, visiting Debre Damo and Debra Maryam Qorqor were also stunning experiences. The latter is close to Abuna Yemata Guh and could even be visited in the same day if you are reasonably fit, as it is about 400 meters above the desert floor. There is no death-defying climbing, just a steep trail up to a couple of monasteries which offer spectacular views over the Tigray desert.
Debre Damo is farther north near the Eritrean border. While the monastery here is nowhere near as impressive as the others, the climb to it certainly is. Unfortunately, the monks living there will only allow men to climb, and they were too drunk to really explain why to us. However, for the men that are allowed, there is a 15-meter-long woven cowhide rope hanging in front of a sheer cliff face that you pull yourself up. It is not as crucial as the climb to Abuna Yemata Guh, but it is steep enough to really test your faith and better understand theirs.
Notes for Nomads: Abuna Yemata Guh, and Debra Maryam Qorqor are best visited from the village of Hawzen. You will need a local guide, and you can get a good one from the local guide association if you get in touch with Haile Weldegerima (+251 91 426 3799). While the climb to Abuna Yemata is certainly scary, it does not require any special rock climbing skills. Just a bit of bravery. The guides also have harnesses and ropes for rental if you are so inclined.
We stayed at the Gheralta Lodge just outside the village, and were super glad we did. It offers delicious home-cooked Italian food, sweeping views of the valley, and magical little stone eco-huts to ensure you have a comfortable stay. You can drive on the backroads to Debre Damo from there, or you can visit it from Adigrat or Adwa which are closer (drive or hire a bajaj).