yesterday we visited Abuna Yemata church, located just outside of Hawizen town (about a 2.5 hr drive from Mekelle, on a very very very dusty road).
Abuna Yemata was, according to tradition, one of the “Nine Saints” who came to Ethiopia from Syria, bringing christianity to Aksum at the beginning of the 6th century. The 9 saints proceeded to spread out across ethiopia in order to found further monasteries. Yemata went to the Gheralta region of tigray, where he set up a hermitage at the summit of the vertical-sided rock needle of Guh.
approaching the rock needle (Guh) from a distance. The arrow in the first picture shows the location of the church which is carved into the back side of the rock formation (like a cave). The 2nd photo shows the rock formation as we hiked up to it.
Yemata hollowed out a church in the side of the back side of the rock formation, the entrance to which gives way to a 50 meter sheer cliff face. Why did he build a church in such an obscure and inaccessible location? Maybe it was to bring privacy and peace for the priests and worshippers. Maybe it was a safety and security concern. After all, there were desert bandits looking to loot religious artifacts… and the destructive Queen Gudit whose infamous legacy includes destroying and pillaging many christian churches in northern Ethiopia.
Accessing the church involved a semi-strenuous uphill hike (at 2200 m elevation)- this took about 1 hour from leaving our parked car on the road.
Then, a 20 meter free climb up a sheer vertical rock face (there is one place to rest about halfway up). extreme adrenaline rush! especially when climbing back down. This is my friend Agegnehu climbing… Yes there are pictures of me climbing but not on my camera. (will them post later!)
Upon reaching the top, this “window” is the first visible sign of the hidden church. From below, the church is virtually invisible.
This photo shows a small cave where the priests can sleep and the church’s loud speaker for when the priests chant at 530 am. in this picture you can see how high up we had climbed!
This is marie walking cautiously along the ledge, which wraps around to the back side of the rock needle formation and leads to the church entrance
Here I am standing in the entrance of the church. The church is fully carved INSIDE the rock, meaning that the entrance simply looks like a cave.
This is the view as you enter the church. The paintings were done by a saint called Biniyam around the 15th century, according to the priest. You can see the large stone hewn pillar in the middle of the church, which is a common architectural feature of the ethiopian rock hewn churches.
The ceiling of Abuna Yemata beta kristyan.
Overall, this was an amazing experience. it was terrifying completing the climb, but the priests told us that no one has ever fallen. I’m not sure if this is because of selection bias or because God is protecting the entrance.
Lastly: I would like to note, for the sake of future tourists, that you do NOT need to hire a guide to go to the church. We rented a car for the day in Mekelle for 2000 birr. After passing through Hawizen town heading towards Megab, our car was followed by two “guides” on a motor bike for 10 KM, and then they proceeded to follow us on foot for almost 1 hour. They would not stop harassing us, even after we politely (and then vehemently) declined their services. They were quite relentless in insisting that you MUST hire a guide to go to the church, saying that it is required by the tourism office. This is NOT TRUE. It is perfectly fine to walk to the church by yourself, without a guide. Plus you can SEE the rock needle from the road and so the guide is totally unnecessary. You just walk towards the rock. According to the priest himself, the ONLY required fee for entering the church is 150 birr which you pay to the staff upon reaching the free-climb ascent. To re-iterate: a professional guide is most definitely NOT REQUIRED to visit Abuna Yemata. The support staff there have a receipt book and they also help you with the technical aspects of the free climb- telling you where to place your hands and feet etc. (the 150 birr charge applies to foreigners only). The priest asked for a “tip” for “tea and coffee”- which we paid (about 5-10 birr per person) and then the support staff also asked for a “tip” which we did NOT pay, because we felt that the 90 birr we had given to the priest is more than enough to buy tea and coffee for him and all the staff combined. I am pretty sure they do not ask for such “tips” from Ethiopian visitors, but we were happy to oblige - within reason. tea costs about 2 Birr per person, which is why we felt it unnecessary to further tip the other staff. The guy is a priest so I think he can share his 90 birr of tea money with his staff. sharing is caring!