We drove from Axum to Hawsen in the Tigray region. The Gheralta cluster of rock-hewn churches are not far from there. We opted to visit the nearest of them. We stayed at the Tourist Hotel which is very nice because you can actually park your vehicle right in front of your room. We paid 230Birr for a basic but clean room with a nice bathroom. We made an appointment with a school boy to guide us to the church the next morning at 2 (Ethiopian time) 8:00 our time. It was at some stages a 4×4 drive to the church and our guide, who was riding on a bicycle was totally exhausted by the time we arrived at the area where the church is located. The key for the church had to be organised and when the farmer that has the key arrived, he was to say the least, not very friendly! He demanded 150Birr entrance fee, so Arno opted out and I entered the church after removing my shoes. Although this drunken key holder sort of spoiled the occasion for us, we still enjoyed it and I made sure that enough photo’s were taken for Arno to see how the church looks inside. This church are more like a cave with stone pillars and steps carved out of the rock.
The Tourist Hotel
Our guide and his bicycle showing the way to the church
Entrance to the church area
The church bell
Waiting for the unfriendly key holder
Our guide and the key holder that never stopped moaning
We drove the 30 teeth rattling kilometers back towards the main road trying to locate the Takatisfi cluster of churches. Between Adigrat and Mekele we turned offroad again to look at the Petros and Paulus church which is perched high onto the mountain side.
More history about the churches of Tigray
Though most of the travelers to Ethiopia visit the famous rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, the rock-hewn churches of Tigray offer the most spectacular views. Until the mid 1960’s, the churches were almost unknown outside Tigray itself.
The churches in Tigray are generally semi-monolithic (only partially separated from the congregation rock) or built in to the pre-existing caves. There are over 200 rock-hewn churches from Gheralta to Adwa most of them easily accessible although some are situated on the mountain ranges and involve climbing through fairly difficult terrain. But, all this somehow adds to the attraction of the churches and offers an incredible scenery of the surrounding countryside which makes the trip to these churches very enjoyable and rewarding. The Tigray churches may well prove to be Orthodox Ethiopia’s best-kept secret. The churches were built in high, remote places to fend off would-be attackers. In the 10th century, the Jewish queen Judith tried to eradicate Christianity by burning churches and valuable Christian works. An invasion led by Ahmed Gragn (the “left-hand”) in the 16thc also destroyed valuable treasures and sign of the destruction still appear in many of the churches. A local tradition attributes the churches were hewn out either during the joint reigns of Abraha and Atsbeha, the first Christian king of Ethiopia (c. 330-356 AD), or during the time when the nine saints spread monasticism in Ethiopia during the 6th century. Some are very elaborate, cathedral-like, separated from the rock on three sides, while others are more like caves with great stone pillars descending within.