With around 120 Rock-Hewn Churches and breathtaking landscape with sharp peaks that rise from the desert highlands of Northern Ethiopia, Tigray has a lot to offer. Nonetheless, the difficulty to travel there makes it still quite Off The Beaten Track, except maybe for the 2-3 most famous churches where you might meet tour groups on their way from Aksum to Mekele or Lalibela.
An Area Challenging To Discover… So why is Tigray less popular amongst travelers & tourists than Lalibela or Gonder or Aksum?
- The Rock-Hewn Churches of Tigray are very different from the Monolithic Churches (carved out of the ground) you find in Lalibela: they are mostly Semi-Monolithic (only partly separated from the host rock) or even built into pre-existing caves, and hence at first sight less “impressive”.
- Most of them sit on the top of cliffs or peaks and can only be reached after a long and / or vertiginous climb. It is more often than not a rewarding but physically very challenging undertaking.
- The many churches are scattered through the highlands of Tigray, and some are almost impossible to reach if you do not have your own wheels. To make matter worse, accommodation is scarce in this area, but for the stunning Gheralta Lodge (not a budget accommodation, though).
- Last but not least, you will need a guide, as priests do not live in or near the churches, and finding them might be quite difficult, especially with no common language (except if you speak Tigrayan). So on top of the (high) entrance fees for each church, you will have to pay for a guide, plus tip the priest that might have left his fields or house especially for you.
But A Rewarding Experience!
So why go there in the first place?
- You will have a completely different experience in Tigray, away from the masses. Especially after Lalibela, where you can hardly escape the crowds, you will enjoy being the only visitor in most of the churches. Moreover, with far less visitors, interactions with the Priests are much easier, provided you have a guide who can translate for you…
- The Rock-Hewn Churches of Tigray belong to the oldest in Ethiopia, some dating back to the… 5th Century, which means at the very beginning of Christianity!
- “The Journey Is The Reward”… Yes, reaching some of those churches is a long and strenuous hike, and sometime a vertiginous and scary one at that. But those hikes belong to the beauty of the visit, and make the experience even more rewarding.
- Last but not least, if you want to splurge a little, then treat yourself with a few days at the unique Gheralta Lodge! Believe it or not, but yes: world-class accommodation at a fair price does exist in Ethiopia! Gheralta Lodge is a heaven of peace and quietness, and the ideal place to relax from the long hikes to the Rock-Hewn Churches of Tigray. A welcome change… Book far in advance, though!
Where To Go?
With no less than 120 Rock-Hewn Churches in Tigray, organized in different clusters, you could spend weeks in this area and still not discover everything. Many are stunning, and I could only cover a few of those in the Wukro Cluster and the Gheralta Cluster.
Wukro Cherkos & “Abraha We Atsbeha” were an interesting sight to understand the concept of Semi-Monolithic Churches.
But the most memorable visit was to “Abuna Yemata Guh”! Vertiginous… Breathtaking… Downright Scary… I am not sure which adjective suits best for the climb to this well-hidden church, but one thing is for sure: if I had somehow imagined how difficult, dangerous & scary the climb up this small church was, I most probably wouldn’t have gone… Well, No Risk, No Fun! When you think you have done the worst? Well, smile: the next part is even more challenging and even more acrobatic… It starts with a steep uphill trek, is then followed by a very steep ascent, followed by a 7 meters walls that must be climbed (tell your guide to take ropes to secure you!), and then some very narrow ways along a wall and a hundred meter high cliff…