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, “Gheralta with its ‘western film’ scenery of mountains seems to be a kind of Ethiopian Arizona. An Arizona, however, without motels are desperadoes, but nevertheless an eldorado with the choice intellectual pleasure of constantly stimulating and satisfying the passion for discovery. It is the home of a quarter of the rock churches, some famous for their stone workmanship, ancient paintings and manuscripts, and others known for their magnificent view and difficult ascent. Such great churches as Abune Yemata Guh, Mariam Korker, Debretsion, Yohannes Maequddi, Abune Gebre Mikael, Debrema’ar and Degum Selassie are in the very heart of this cliff.
Abune Yemata Guh
Abune Yemata is one of Gheralta’s rock hewn churches, it can be reached from the historic town of Hawzien, turning off at the village of Megab and keeping left on the escarpment. A 4km drive from Megab and a further 30 minutes’ walk will bring you to the foot of the perpendicular rock mountains of Guh. The scenery is breathtaking and the mountains resemble pillars reaching to the sky. Megab is only 10 km from Degum or 8 km south of Hawzen. This church is carved on the cliff face of the Guh Mountains; unfortunately, there are no ropes, like at Debre Damo use to ascent. You can find only footholds and handgrips in the rock face. Just before the entrance to the church there is a narrow ledge carved in the cliff from which one can view a sheer drop of approximately 250m to 300m.
Ivy Pearce, one of the first few westerners to visit the site, gives her account of a visit “I climbed up some pretty stiff stuff and then came face to face with a cliff face with only footholds and handgrips at irregular intervals. This climb I could not manage, as my arms were not long enough to reach the next handgrip to let my foot go to find the next foot-grip. Furthermore, the handgrips were too wide to grasp firmly with my small hands. I didn’t want to take risks, so gave it up and sat on a small ledge below.”
Ruth plant on her part described the church as ”…the most unusual church in the most unusual place, that place being majestic and awesome.” The effort of ascending, however, is lavishly rewarded by the well-preserved paintings attributed to the 15th century. The interior of the church has four free standing and six non-free standing columns. It is 7.8m wide, 9.4m deep and 4m high. In fact, the church is not only known for its difficult ascent but also for its truly remarkable murals. It is colorfully decorated wall to wall with exciting murals of Old and New Testament stories. Nine of the twelve apostles are depicted in a round frame on the ceiling. Abune Yemata on his horseback is shown on one of the walls. Plant described the paintings as ”the most sophisticated paintings found so far in Tigrai” It is indeed surprising to learn that such great works of art existed for centuries in an ”unusual place” that seems rather closer to the moon than to earth. And it stands to reason that the so-called ”enemies of the church” failed to reach it or never knew it existed. It is interesting to witness people from all lifestyles climb the church ”like spiders” on the annual festival which takes place on November 8 in most years.
Debre Mariam Korkor, is described by David Buxton, author of, the Rock-Hewn and other Medieval Churches of Tigrai Province, Ethiopia, as ”one of the many important shrines in Gheralta.” It is a rock church situated on one of the high mountains of Gheralta just overlooking the village of Megab, eight km south of Hawzien. An hour’s climb from the village brings you to the church. Daniel Korkor, a smaller rock church, is a minutes’ walk apart. While climbing up to the church, a visitor enjoys the panoramic view of the Hawzien plain to the northeast and Imbasneity to the west.
The church of Mariam Korkor faces west and it has a white washed façade of a built structure. It is one of the biggest and most complex rock-hewn churches of Tigrai. The interior of the church is 9.4m wide, 17m deep and about 6m high. There are six huge pillars, 2.4m apart from one other. The columns have bracket capitals and are cruciform in design. There are also a series of beautifully decorated arches, the arches and ceiling of the church are decorated with bas-reliefs, some of them similar to those at Abraha Atsebaha.
Mariam Korkor is also rich in terms of ancient murals, the walls and columns of the church are decorated with paintings of stories from both the Old and New Testament. On one of the columns, a magnificent painting depicting Archangel Raphael can be viewed. This particular painting is reported by Gerster to be ”similar to the painting in the cathedral church of Faras”. Another painting on the western wall is of the Virgin Mary with a circle around her abdomen. This circle, according to Ivy Pearce, indicates the development of Christ in utero. She further went on to state that such a theme was common in the 17th century Byzantine art. Plant observed variations in the styles of the paintings in the church and was led to believe that ”at least three painters have been at work.” The church also has a wide collection of parchment manuscripts and crosses. Daniel Korkor is a smaller church with only two rooms. The ceiling of the domed anteroom is decorated with primitive paintings. The mountains of Gheralta and the Hawzien plain can be viewed along the route to Daniel Korkor.
Debre tsion or Abune Abraham
This stunning church often referred as Abune Abraham, after the monk who founded it, Debre Tsion is a church entirely hewn from a living rock. It is rectangular in shape, 12.9m deep, 7.7m wide and 7.6m high. Its ceiling is supported by six cruciform pillars and its three sides are surrounded by a cloister.
The back walls of the holy of holies, the domes and the wall panels are abundantly decorated with fine paintings of saints and apostles. The dome is especially adorned with patterns, ”When we did enter we were astonished at the beauty of this church and its many murals,” reports by Ivy Pearce. Because of the simplicity of the lines and colors, the paintings are estimated to be of the 15th century although according to historians the church itself is thought to have been constructed in the 14th century. Even though it is amazing to learn that the paintings have survived to this day with out receiving due care and protection, their color is now fading away at an alarming rate due to water seepage.
A 15th century unique circular ceremonial fan, one meter in diameter with wooden framework makes the visit to this church special. Each of its 34 panels is finely painted with figures of the apostles. There is also a small domed room considered to have served as Abune Abraham’s prayer room. Its walls are decorated with many geometrical designs and carvings in relief depicting Angels and Saints. It is indeed a manifestation of the great stone workmanship that was prevalent in the whole of Tigrai both at that time and before. According to Ruth plant, it is ”one of the great churches of Tigrai, both from the architectural and devotional aspect.” The annual festival takes place on the 21st of Hidar (30th of November in most years).
The rock hewn church of Yohannes Maquddi is situated on a plateau, east of Debretsion. David Buxton reports, ”This church of Saint John, is the most interesting I have seen and is memorable, too, for its means of access which is a narrow clef between bulging walls of bare, glaring sandstone.” It is an hour’s walk from Debretsion. There are two entrance doors both depict Aksumite style of construction. The main entrance is for men while the secondary entrance, which lies to the right of the main entrance, is for women. The sanctuary is so bright because of the abundant light that comes in through the window above the main entrance.
The church has a rectangular shape and its’ inside space measures about 13m deep and 10m wide. The height of the walls is about six meters. There are four freestanding pillars supporting the ceiling. According to Ruth Plant, the general layout of the church is different from that of the other rock churches. ”If I thought that the other churches had a reverent and holy atmosphere, this one more so”, writes Ivy Pearce. Plant adds, ”So sacred did this church seem to be that while we were inside taking many flash pictures of the screws of murals on the walls, we were talking to one another very quietly.”
Yohannes Maequddi is best known for its ancient and well-preserved paintings. Ruth Plant referred to them as ”strangely pleasing primitive paintings”. Ivy Pearce, in agreement with Plant adds, ”The church of Yohannes Maequddi in the Gheralta region of Tigrai has crude and quite primitive paintings, quaint and attractive, different from any other church in Tigrai”. They are in a very good condition, because of the nonporous nature of the rock upon which they are painted.
Among the many subjects these old magnificent paintings depict Adam, Eve, a serpent, Apostle John, Madonna and Child. Dale Otto, one of the members of the Pearce’s pilgrimage to the rock-hewn churches of Tigrai, remarks, ”Their flatness, simplicity, boldness of line, lack of shading and richness of collar are unique among the churches we visited. Even their occasional geometrically patterned borders are wide, have flat colors and lack of intricacy of similar designs in other churches and manuscripts.”
Abune Gebre Mikael
The church of Abune Gebre Mikael is located a short distance, 16 km south of Abune Yemata Guh. It is set upon the western side of Koraro. Abune Gebre Mikael is one of the best and finest churches in Gheralta. The church, cruciform in design, is cut beautifully into a dome like rock. Its ceiling well, decorated with cupolas, is supported by eight carefully hewn columns and arches. Four of its pillars are incised with crosses
This church has two wooden doors and four windows through which the sanctuary receives an abundance of light. Local tradition states that this reverent relic dates back to the 4th century A.D. The way to the sanctuary is itself memorable. The path is a steep climb and passes through a split, which requires jumping to and from rocks. The interior part of the church is abundantly decorated with marvelous paintings and murals. Irrespective of its difficult ascent, the church has a wealth of murals.
A visit to Gheralta should also include Inda Mariam Wukro. This relic rock hewn church is situated near a Nebelet settlement and found 34 km from the town Hawzien. The church of Mariam Wukro is not separated from the native rock. Its visible southern exterior does not give any indication of the quality of the interior. Instead, it could be said that the exterior almost obliterates the great ornamentation and workmanship displayed throughout the interior of the church. Regarding this aspect, Ruth Plant, comments: “In the overgrown churchyard with tall bamboo canes, the natural rock face, with two doors and two rough windows, gives no anticipation of the accurately carved interior.” The exterior, like that of many others, has a completely alien leer indeed.
In Tigrean tradition of rock church architecture, the concern is the interior and almost no effort is exerted in beautifying the exterior. In confirmation of this fact, Paul Henze, writes, ”There is almost no interest in the exterior in Tigrai … but the interiors of the larger Tigrean rock churches are superior to most of those of Lalibela in refinement of design and decoration.” In fact, there are three doors on the southern facade of the church, two directly leading to the sanctuary and one leading to the inner circuit of the church (the kine Mahlet).
The kine Mahlet, 9.2m deep, 4.4m wide and 5.2m high, are richly decorated with stone carvings and relatively recent paintings. Its wall panels and ceiling are splendidly ornamented. Finely incised large Greek crosses dominate the western and southern sides of the ceiling while its northern and central parts are adorned by geometrically perfect domes. Two superbly carved freestanding columns, whose height is 3.3m, support the ceiling and divide the narthex into two bays. The columns are connected by a double arch with an unsupported median pendant. It is a remarkable sight.
A wooden door leads from the kine Mahlet to the Sanctuary. Another entrance will grant access from the ambulatory (immediate church enclosure) on the northwestern side of the church to the three-bayed and three-aisled sanctuary. It is more than 9m wide and 10m deep. Its nine-meter high ceiling is supported by four colossal freestanding columns with bracket capitals. There are also ten columns in bas-relief. The huge columns, the exceptionally high ceiling, as well as the series of arches, domes and decorative crosses in relief are sources of its unmatched grace and unusual aura of sacredness.
On the western side of the holy of holies, one can see a window-like opening in Aksumite style. It is very much reminiscent of the windows of Lalibela churches. In fact, in many respects, the church itself shows considerable resemblance to the churches of Lalibela and Debre Damo. David Buxton writes, ”Enda Mariam Wukro shows clear kinship with the built church at Debre Damo with some important Lalibela churches including Mariam, Amanuel, and Abba Libanos.” Another chapel, accessible by a wooden ladder, houses the tabot of Saint George. It is, in fact, an extension of the church of Mariam. Inda Mariam Wukro is a very complex and magnificent church. According to Ruth Plant, it is ”without doubt a great example of Tigrean architecture”. Professor Antonio Mordini was probably the first foreigner to visit this sacred edifice of worship in 1939.
Other Rock Churches of Tigray
Atsbi Wonberta Cluster
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...read more
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...read more
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...read more
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...read more
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...read more