Atsbi Wonberta is located east of Wukro and bears the churches of Mikael Barka, Debreselam Mikael and Mikael Imba. These splendidly executed edifices are found perched on a mountain commanding a view of their surroundings.

Mikael Barka

Mikael Barka is located just off the road towards the right side of the Wukro – Atsbi road. It is only 18km east of the town Wukro. This church is carved from the top of an isolated and roughly round rock hill. Despite its dimensions, it is rather easy to reach, and one of the least visited relics in the region. From the top of the hill, one can enjoy a commanding view of the mountain of Tserae and the valley of Womberta to the southeast. There are a number of graves and a few dwellings inside the churchyard. The church has a built facade, which, according to the chief priest, was built in 1967. Two entrances lead from the anteroom to the sanctuary. It is a three aisled and three bayed square church, 9m wide and 9m deep. It has twelve columns, four of them freestanding and cruciform in design. The bracket capitals at different heights and the domes and altars are skillfully executed. The ceiling is decorated with a variety of patterns in relief. Mikael Barka is not known for its wealth of paintings, but one can see murals depicting Saint Mikael. There are also faded murals visible on several columns. Tradition has it that the church was burnt by Queen Judith in the tenth century. According to oral tradition, the edifice is believed to have been sculpted in the 6th century under the auspices of Abune Abraham, an Ethiopian saint.

Debre selam Mikael

The church of Debre Selam Mikael is situated 9km northwest of the town of Atsbi. It is situated inside a mountainside cave, however noticeable due to its white washed facade. The mountain is 2678 meters above sea level. The view from the top of the green meadows below and of the running river Hidar at the foot of the hill is exhilarating. There are three wooden doors and four square wooden windows on the white washed facade of the outer church. The arched door, just beyond the entrance to the churchyard is 2.3m high and one meter across. A looped cross and a carved Greek cross can be seen on the window shutters. The exterior of the church is 11.6m in width, 11.5m in depth and 5m in height. The church is unique in its architectural design. It is a church within a cave or, as Ivy Pearce referred to it “a church within a church”. Ruth Plant, the author of the book entitled the Architecture of the Tigrai, reported that it is “a combination of built front, rock roof and sides.” The central door leads into the anteroom with three huge built columns, a beautiful freestanding arch and a water catchments basin. It is built in the Aksumite “sandwich style” of construction (a layer of wood then a layer of stone). The woodwork of the doors and window shutters is exquisitely decorated in geometrical patterns and includes swastika like symbols. The window shutters above the central door are especially ornately carved. A lovely painting of the Madonna and Child can also be seen on one of the window shutters. The ends of the protruding part of the wood beams are round in shape and their presence adds beauty to the church. The area where the sanctuary and the Holy of Holies lie are small and dark due to daylight being almost completely excluded by the window shutters. It is 6m in width, 6.5m in depth and 7m in height and has four freestanding pillars about 2.6m tall. The series of arches of stone are tastefully executed. Except for its limited space and darkness, the church is regarded as one of the finest. Ivy Pearce described the church as “one of the most extraordinary” edifices of Tigrai whose “design and workmanship is of the highest order.” The church of Debre Selam Mikael is also known for its wealth of paintings. Many faded murals can be seen on the walls and arches of the sanctuary. The art influence, according to Pearce, is Byzantine.

Mikael Imba

Mikael Imba can be reached either from Wukro via Atsbi or Agulae. It is only 35km from Mekelle, via the small town of Haiki Meshal. The church is dedicated to Saint Mikael and lies on a flat topped hill, 2300m above sea level. It is not visible until one reaches the top of the hill. The beautiful track from Atsbi leads to within a few meters of the foot of the hill. Swiss photographer, George Gerster comments, “I do not know of any trip in Ethiopia of greater attraction with regard to the countryside. The Amba in question offers a view of paradise.” The church is almost a monolith and three of its walls are completely free of the cliff out of which it is carved. The exterior of the church is about 17m wide. The central entrance leads into the anteroom beyond, the beautifully decorated wooden door that leads to the sanctuary. The interior decoration of the church is impressive. “Internally one is astonished, as at Abraha Atsebaha, by the complexities of the design and the skill displayed in achieving such a layout by the difficult and laborious process of excavation,” comments David Buxton, the entomologist who studied the rock hewn churches of Tigrai. Dr. Tewelde Medhin Yosef, the first to list the rock hewn churches of Tigrai, described it “as an artistically finished church”. The church’s ceiling, like that of Wukro Cherkos, is geometrically patterned. Stepped capitals and a large Greek cross hewn in relief on the ceiling can also be seen. The walls have many carvings and the wooden doors are beautifully decorated. Dale Otto, a member of Pearce’s pilgrimage to the rock hewn churches of Tigrai, remarks, “This church is magnificent inside, a masterpiece of stone hewing. Throughout this church the workmanship and symmetry are of the highest standard.” The church of Mikael Imba is spacious, 16.6m wide and 9m deep (excluding the Holy of Holies area and the anteroom). There are nine freestanding and sixteen pillars in relief. The pillars are 3.2m tall and 2.5m apart. The ceiling is 6m high. Mikael Imba is one of the painstakingly carved and complex churches of Tigrai. Mikael Imba is also one of the wealthiest churches in terms of treasures and manuscripts. The 1.5m tall black iron cross which, according to Pearce, was made “at a time when iron was much more precious than gold and silver,” is one of the valuable possessions of the church. Many manuscripts (some partially damaged by accidental fire) can be seen in the treasure house of the church. Pearce, after her pilgrimage to the rock churches of Tigrai, wrote about one of the manuscripts, “The entire manuscript was decorated page by page in its letters very like The Book of the Kells and Lindisfarne Gospels.” No academic authority has established with certainty the exact date of construction of this splendid edifice. Tradition has it that it was built in the 4th century AD. David Buxton is of the opinion that Wukro Cherkos, Mikael Imba and Abraha Atsebaha are “posterior to Debre Damo” but “before Lalibela” (late 11th or early 12th century). The existence of Mikael Imba was first reported in 1948 by Beatrice Playne, the pioneer in the study of Ethiopian paintings. On either side of the church there are large water catchments basins, similar to those of the Debre Damo monastery. According to the priests of the church, the water remains at a constant level. The annual festival takes place on the 12th day of Hidar (21st of November on most years).

Other Rock Churches of Tigray

Gheralta Cluster

The Wukro Degum road leads west to Gheralta, its rock crowned peak, together with far reaching plains, enclosed by a chain of mountains, casts a panoramic view. George Gerster, the Swiss photographer, writes in his book, Churches in Rock,...

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Wukro Cluster

The only sizable town between Adigrat and Mekelle, with its relaxed if rather nondescript character and forms a convenient base from which to explore the under list as well as other a number of rock hewn churches. There are major rock hewn...

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Tsaeda Imba or Teka Tesfai Cluster

Along the Mekelle – Adigrat road, 25km after Wukro, an escarpment better known as Tsada Imba, meaning White Mountain, accompanies the road along the route to Sinkata. The rocky but scenic area is the home of one of the highly sacred places in...

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Monastery of Debre Damo

The monastery of Debre Damo is notable for its 6th century Axumite stone church, as well as for its impregnable cliff top position. This isolated relic lay on a 2800m high amba (flat topped hill) covering an area of 0.5m2 and sheer cliffs. The...

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Monastery of Gunda Gundo

Gunda Gundo is accessed from the town of Edagahamus, 100km after Mekelle. It has an area that lay between a sheer side cliff in the west and an escarpment that drops towards the Afar depression. From this settlement, a 24km rough road leads to...

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