A Pilgrim in Tigray

The non-believers among you might consider skipping churches when making your sightseeing hit list; on a trip to Ethiopia, this is where you’d be making your biggest mistake. In Tigray you’ll find the oldest Christian sites in the country, and they are absolute must-sees, even if you’re of the atheistic persuasion.

Church fatigue is a real risk when you travel around Ethiopia, so the length of time you spend in each location and the way you pace your trip is crucial. You can spend weeks in Tigray, hiking from church to church, but the reality is that two nights is probably all you need to get a fantastic impression of the place. The best place to stay is the pleasant Gheralta Lodge, and if you see only one church while you’re there make it Abuna Yemata.

Getting there is not for the faint of heart; it’s a short (but in places extremely steep) climb up to a sandstone pillar, the last quarter of which must be done barefoot and without even a hint of safety equipment. After reaching a sort of saddle between the pillar the church is in and the rest of the mountain range, you access the church via a narrow rock ledge with an eye watering drop off to your left. You can then catch your breath in a small alcove before the priest opens the rough wooden door to the church.

If the climb hasn’t taken your breath away, the interior certainly will. The church is for all intents and purposes a man-made cave, nearly every surface of which is covered in hand painted Christian iconography. Your guide will eagerly tell you the story, none of which you will remember as you gaze in slack-jawed wonderment at some of the oldest frescoes in Africa. The main one (in the pictures above) is reckoned to be over 1000 years old, and the lack of humidity in the cave means it’s nearly perfectly preserved. It is, without exaggeration of hyperbole, simply astonishing.

You can visit at any time of day, but I’d suggest going as quickly after sunrise as you can before the heat of the day sets in. The climb is hot and sweaty, and you really want to be back at the lodge for lunch to wait out the heat of the day.

What makes places like Abuna Yemata so impressive is not just that they were built in the first place, but that they were created with Iron Age hand tools and no modern engineering know-how. They are not just figurative acts of faith but literal ones too.

Dan is far from a man of the cloth, but he was thoroughly impressed (and left nearly speechless) by Ethiopia’s most spectacular church. If you’re going on your own African pilgrimage, look no further than his breathtaking planning skills.

[It] is reckoned to be over 1000 years old, and the lack of humidity in the cave means it's nearly perfectly preserved.

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