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The churches of Tigray - A view from our expert author
Every one of them is imbued with an aura of spirituality that seeps from the very rock into which they are carved.
The epithet of best-kept secret has been applied to so many modern mediocrities that it feels wholly inadequate when talking about the 100-plus ancient rock-hewn churches carved into the sandstone cliffs of northeast Tigray. Described by British academic Ivy Pearce as ‘the greatest of the historical-cultural heritages of the Ethiopian people’, this scattered collection of architectural gems, their interiors adorned with medieval paintings and Axumite curves, their stone walls imbued with an aura of spirituality reflecting centuries of continuous use, still serve as active shrines today. More widely scattered than their counterparts at Lalibela, and in most cases relatively difficult to access, the churches of northeast Tigray were almost totally neglected by the tourist industry prior to around 2005. That has changed, thanks largely to the opening of several upmarket lodges and the construction of new surfaced road connections to Axum and Mekele, but even so the churches are best suited to reasonably fit and unhurried travellers.
The most impressive and popular cluster of churches is associated with the Gheralta Escarpment, whose sandstone cliffs support the legendary likes of Abuna Yemata Guh, Debre Maryam Korkor and Abuna Abraham Debre Tsion. For budget-conscious backpackers, recommendations include the highly accessible Teka Tesfai cluster, while those wanting to avoid challenging ascents are pointed to suburban Wukro Chirkos and the superlative Abraha we Atsbeha. And for those with a penchant for getting off the beaten track, there are the more remote churches around Atsbi and Abiy Addi or in the Agame Mountains, some of which might still go weeks without being visited by an outsider. And while rock-hewn churches are the region’s speciality, other worthwhile sites include the built-up Axumite church of Debre Damo, the magnificent 2,800-year-old sacrificial altar unearthed at Adi Akaweh in 2007, and the Amba Fekada rock art site north of Adigrat, the region’s largest town.