I hesitate to write this article, because I am worried that I will unveil one of the best kept secrets in East Africa: the Ancient Rock-Hewn churches of Northern Ethiopia. To get to most of these churches you have to hike up into the mountains, where you will find hidden 1600 year-old churches that have been preserved by the monks and priests of modern and of old. Most of the churches were carved deep into the rock to protect them, as well as their history, from invaders.
Now 1600 years later, the Gheralta region of Tigray has more 120 of these rock-hewn churches, each with its own unique ancient murals and relics. You don’t have to be a person of faith to be moved by the way a culture has preserved its history and heritage. The Gheralta region resembles parts of Utah, with dry, epic cliffs shooting straight up from a sandy desert to speckle the horizon with mystery and wonder. Gheralta will take you back in time: shepherds dressed in all white woven-cloth carrying wooden staffs, peasant homes and farms constructed from light-colored stones, and passing camels carrying loads of salt back from Afar.
My husband and I live in Mekelle, which is about a 2-hour drive from the base of our three favorite rock churches: Abuna Yemata Guh, Maryam Korkor, and Daniel Korkor. Maryam Korkor and Daniel Korkor are actually only a 7-minute walk from each other at the summit of a towering plateau.
You can ask the lodge for a guide or you can head toward the rock churches and stop at small town called Megab and ask for a local guide. I have done both of these hikes multiple times, but I would never venture out without a guide.
ABUNA YEMATA GUH
Abuna Yemata Guh is not a hike for the faint of heart. It is short in distance, but there is a 30 foot section of straight free climbing plus a 1000 foot increase in elevation to reach the top. You can ask your guide to bring a rope and harness, which is probably the safest option. If you elect to go without the harness, the guide will help place your hands and feet as you climb.
At the base of Abuna Yemata, we started hiking toward the ridge of cliffs in the distance, wondering how we could ever scale that steep terrain to the null at the top. The hike began with a decent upward grade of stair steps for about 20 min, and before long, we were met with a cliff and no path forward. The guide asked us to remove our shoes as she looked up the face of the cliff. I removed my shoes and stood unsure at the challenge before me. The guide asked if I wanted to use the rope for my climb, but I elected to try it without the rope first. Horses charged through my veins as I gripped the first hold. One guide went before me and one followed behind to lead my feet and hands.
Upon reaching the top, I gazed down the escarpment to see what I had done. My pounding heart was met with relief. The rest of our group reached the top slowly but surely and we scrambled over boulders and up small ledges to continue the ascent. Still barefoot, I walked on my hands and feet over a natural bridge with a 100 foot drop on either side. Then I shimmied along a two-foot ledge, leaning into the side of the rock away from the limitless drop. I paused for a moment to take in the view.
At the end of the ledge there was a small cave with an old wooden door tucked in the folds. A priest came carrying an ancient metal cross and opened the creaking door. Inside awaited some of the most well-preserved murals in all of the Tigray, ancient biblical characters outlined in rich tones telling the tales of old. I sat in the cold church cave that was chiseled out by hand as the priest read from the Orthodox Bible with pages made of goatskin.
MARYAM KORKOR & DANIEL KORKOR
This hike has the most amazing vistas in the region, as well as two of the best churches: Maryam Korkor and Daniel Korkor. The journey is longer than Abuna Yemata and is still steep in sections, but there is no free climbing. We took my 14 year-old brother on this hike a few months ago and he billy-goated his way to the top.
We commenced the hike by climbing through a crack in the face of mountain. In the afternoon, the edges of this crack offer shade and a cool breeze. As we filed toward the top of the crack, I was unprepared for the view that awaited me. The panorama from the first arduous slope through the fractured mountain outlines the ridge where Abuna Yemata is hidden.
All the way to the top, the stunning scenery at every turn literally took my breath away. I was also breathing heavy because we were at over 7000 ft. The final ascent to the top led us through a field of cactus, and there, tucked into the rock, is Mary Korkor. Before entering the church building, the guide motioned for me to cover my head and remove my shoes as a sign of respect.
The paintings inside are not as vivid as those at Abuna Yemata, but they are more detailed and intricate in their design. I took a few minutes to listen to the stories from this place, the afternoon sun finding its way through the cracks and the window. The priest lit a small candle and then reached for a drum. The rhythms of this culture reverberated off the walls.
It’s only a short walk along the edge of a cliff to the backside of the mountain. There, through a small opening in the rock, lies Daniel Korkor. The murals inside are completely different in color and design than those in the other churches, but similar tales are told. I squeezed through the small hole that was entrance to Daniel Korkor and sat on the stone floor, waiting for the guide.
Ethiopia is filled with many ancient wonders. Lalibela with its ancient churches and tales of King Lalibela. Axum with the Queen of Sheba’s Palace and ancient Obelisk dating back 1700 years,though some say they might date back to the pyramids. The Obelisk is 24 meters high and weighs 160 tons. Scholars believe it was built with the help of elephants. There’s also Gondar and Barbara Dar. And then the natural wonders of the Simien Mountains, Lake Tana, the Erta Ale volcano, the salt flats of Afar, and the source of the Blue Nile. But in my opinion, the Gheralta region is one of the most overlooked and under-visited attractions in Ethiopia and maybe all of East Africa.
If you are traveling in Ethiopia and want to check out these churches in Gheralta, Ethiopia Airlines offers affordable domestic flights to Mekelle if your inbound international flight was with Ethiopia airlines. For $165 you can fly to Mekelle, rent a van for $50-100 a day, and head to Gheralta.
There are two lodges in the Gheralta region: Gheralta Lodge and Korkor Lodge. Both are actually owned by Italian families, but Gheralta Lodge is my personal favorite; it’s less expensive, has better meals, and let’s face it — Brad and Angelina stayed there, so it has to be good. I am always shocked at the price; depending on the time of year, it ranges from $45-60 per person a night with breakfast included.
We hope this post has inspired you to visit the ancient churches of Tigray. If you have your own tips to share about Ethiopia please share them in the comments below. Read Next > Amazing Portraits That Will Make You Want To Visit The Omo Valley