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 the region. There are about two caves and three magnificent rock hewn churches in Tsada Imba. For centuries, they remained almost totally cut off from anything except the ecclesiastical world. Despite their nearness to the Mekelle – Adigrat highway, they have remained to this day in obscurity. Now, they are emerging from their white shell to show their beauty and charm to the world.

Petros & Paulos

It is a cave church situated east of a small village of Inda Teka Tesfay, 73km along the Mekelle – Adigrat road. A ten minutes drive across the plain fields will bring you to this antiquity. The church lies on the cliff side of the escarpment, 2740m above sea level. It is visible from the main road because of its white washed facade. The ascent of the cliff face is considered difficult and even terrifying. There are only finger holds and foot grips for use in the ascent. People who suffer from vertigo are advised not to try. After a visit to the church in January 1994, Caroline Swinburn of the BBC reported in one of their radio programs, ” This is not the relaxing country hike I have been led to expect. But rather the kind of expedition for which most westerners would normally take ropes and crampons and may be even a full scale mountain rescue team. The church is partly built (of wood, stone and mortar) and partly the cave. The Holy of Holies lies in the natural cave to the east of the small sanctuary. The sanctuary is square in shape, about 2m wide and 2m deep. There are two wooden pillars supporting the ceiling. Its murals are of great quality and pleasing artistry. On the walls and on the chamber antecedent to the Holy of Holies are a number of striking paintings depicting the Madonna and Child, Angels, the Nine saints, Christ resurrecting, Adam and Eve and many other subjects. The names of the Saints and Angels are shown on the murals. Saint Peter, Saint George, Abune Kiros, Abune Samuel and others are shown in their finest robes and turbans. Paul Henze described the paintings as ” . . . among the most interesting early paintings I saw anywhere in Ethiopia”. He went on to write that they ”…have an originality and liveliness often missing in Ethiopian paintings of this early period.” Unfortunately, the wooden ceiling, mortar and wood walls of the church that hold these magnificent murals and paintings are falling apart. The openings created as a result of the falling mortar have allowed dust and rain water to wash away some of the paint. The church is no longer in use, apparently because of the difficulty in climbing the cliff. However, Halefom Retta, a peasant farmer in a neighboring village, has single handedly hewn a replacement monolithic rock church right at the foot of the escarpment. The Petros and Paulos church is 10m wide, 9m deep and about 3m from the floor to the ceiling. It has four freestanding pillars. The front part of the church is a constructed structure. The church is built in such a way that it could house three replicas of the Ark of the Covenant. Construction of the new Petros and Paulos began in 1982 and was completed twelve years later.

Mikael Milhaizengi

This church dedicated to Saint Mikael is situated about 15 minutes gentle walk south of the church of Petros and Paulos. The isolated round hill out of which the church is carved lies 2760m above sea level. There are a number of graves and old indigenous trees and bushes inside the churchyard. If one knows where to look, the two wooden doors are visible from the main road. One will find church bells of stone hanging in a tree just before reaching the churchyard. The two wooden doors of the church are oval shaped. The main entrance is so small that many must stoop to enter. It is about 1.5m tall and a little less than a meter wide. The church is believed to be a primitive cave. One can see the recent excavation works in what is now the Holy of Holies; four pillars (two of them freestanding) support the ceiling. The church is 5.5m wide and 7.6m deep and the ceiling is 3m high. The most remarkable feature of the church is its beautifully decorated dome; it looks like a decorated circular ”Himbasha” (local Tigrain bread). There is a Greek cross in the middle of the dome. Paul Henze writes, ” Artistically the most noteworthy feature of Milihaizengi Mikael is the flattish cupola in the ceiling between the door and the tabot niche

Medhane Alem Adikesho

Medhane Alem (Holy savior of the world) Adikesho is a rock hewn church situated east of the Melihaizengi church. It is a twenty minute walk from a steep rock face. In the rock face, one can see potholes which the local people believe to be the footprints of Saint George and his horse. Just past the Deje selam (gate of peace) one finds stone graves shaded by olive trees. The doors and windows of the church have massive, ornately carved wooden frames in Aksumite style. Paul Henze in his book entitled Ethiopian Journeys writes, “The doors and windows with their classic heavy wooden frames ornately decorated in Aksumite style were the most pleasing features of this church.” The front part of the exterior is supported by four freestanding rectangular columns at intervals of about four meters. The intervals are filled with masonry. The roof of the church blends in with the hill out of which the church is carved. It was reported by Ivy Pearce, who visited the rock churches of Tigrai in the 1960’s. He commented they resemble, ” the thatched roofs of 15th century English homes”. At the top of the whitewashed exterior, there are three square windows decorated with Saint Andrew’s crosses. Unlike its neighboring rock churches, Medhane Alem Adi Kesho has a cloister. It runs from the north to the south end of the church and is beautifully decorated with patterns. Two doors lead to the sanctuary, where there are six huge square pillars supporting the ceiling, 10.20m wide and 10.35m deep. One can see a striking cross on the right side of the sanctuary’s back wall and its ceiling is delightfully and skillfully decorated with bas relief and symmetrical patterns. Dale Otto reports, ”Because of the size and massive freestanding pillars, the church is decidedly Cathedral like in its feeling, very majestic.” There are no paintings whatsoever but their absence is surely a blessing in disguise in the sense that their presence would have concealed the wonderfully hewn walls. According to Ruth Plant, Medhane Alem Adi Kesho is ” one of the truly great churches of the Tigrai”

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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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...

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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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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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