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Tigrai region churches - 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 seems ludicrously inadequate when confronted by religious sanctuaries as magnificently obscure as the churches carved into the sandstone cliffs of Tigrai. Practically unknown to other Ethiopians – let alone the outside world – before 1966, the rock-hewn churches of Tigrai have been described by the British academic Ivy Pearce as ‘the greatest of the historical-cultural heritages of the Ethiopian people’. Most of these architectural gems remain in active use today, several house paintings and other sacred medieval artefacts, and every one of them is imbued with an aura of spirituality that seeps from the very rock into which they are carved.
The rock-hewn churches of Tigrai do not function primarily as tourist attractions. A select crop of about 20 churches is described in brochures compiled by the Tigrai Tourist Commission (TTC). The most popular and accessible of these churches might be visited by outsiders once or twice a week, the rest perhaps every two or three months. As for the rest – well, it would not surprise me to learn that half of the rock-hewn churches in Tigrai have gone unseen by foreigners since the 1974 revolution. Visits by foreigners are generally tolerated, sometimes welcomed, and occasionally met with visible distrust. Fortunately, because the Tigraian churches are more scattered and less accessible than their counterparts at Lalibela, it’s difficult to envisage their spiritual integrity ever being threatened by coaches full of prying tourists.
Sensitivity towards an older way of life is a prerequisite for exploring the Tigraian churches. So, too, is patience and humour. Many of the priests will not allow foreigners into their churches during mass, nor, as is customary in Ethiopia, will they open up the church if a mass has already been held on that day. At more inaccessible churches, the priests are understandably loath to undertake the long trek up from the plains unless a large pre-agreed tip is added to the official entrance fee. Then there is the small matter of locating the priest who keeps the key. Though, in recent years this has become increasingly easier.
With sufficient time, and a philosophical frame of mind, exploring these churches is likely to be a highlight of any trip through Ethiopia. True, none of the individual churches compares in architecture or impact to the complex at Lalibela. But, balanced against this, these remote churches do retain an aura of isolation and mystery that many people – I am not one of them – feel Lalibela has sacrificed as it has grown in accessibility and popularity. Furthermore, it is in Tigrai, more than anywhere else, that one is confronted by the radical nature of Ethiopian Christianity. During mass, or at festivals, these remarkable rock edifices witness scenes straight out of the Bible: white-robed worshippers chanting and swaying in prayer, prostrating themselves before the altar, or standing outside the church sharing thick, rough injera and beakers of alcoholic t’ella. This, one senses, is Christianity much as it would have been practised before the Vatican was built, before Martin Luther or Henry VIII, before Billy Graham – an almost surreal reminder that the religion we associate with American televangelism and quaint European country churches is at root every bit as Middle Eastern as Islam or Judaism. It is utterly fantastic!
Many of the Tigraian rock churches lie along the main road between Adigrat and Mekele, or can be visited from it. Four main clusters are covered here, of which the churches that lie along the main road between Freweyni (formerly called Sinkata) and Wukro are the most accessible to those without private transport or with limited time. The pick of these churches is undoubtedly Adi Kasho Medhane Alem, part of the highly accessible Teka Tesfai cluster 10km south of Freweyni/Sinkata. A second rather loose cluster consists of Wukro Chirkos – the most accessible of all the Tigraian churches, as it lies 500m from the main road in the town of Wukro – and the magnificent Abreha we Atsbeha Church along the Hawzien road. The most extensive cluster is found in the Gheralta region, which lies to the south of Hawzien and includes some of the most stunningly situated churches anywhere in Ethiopia. Gheralta can easily be explored out of Hawzien with a vehicle or from Gheralta Lodge, arguably one of the finest boutique resorts in the country. It could also be explored over a few days of hiking, bearing in mind that the region’s finest churches are reached by long, steep walks that require a fair level of fitness. A fourth and more dispersed cluster lies in the Atsbi area, to the east of Wukro. With one exception, the Atsbi churches can be explored only with a vehicle.