North Ethiopia: The Historical Route - Rock Hewn Churches of Tigray

Hawzien Plain

Gheralta Mountains

Tigray Region


April 13, 2010

The rock-hewn churches of Tigray number in the dozens and are scattered throughout the flat-topped, round-topped, spindle-topped spires of the Chain and Gheralta Mountains.

Several, if not most of these one thousand five hundred year old churches are inaccessible to all but the most hardy.  Toe holds, hand holds, steep climbs followed by ladders and ropes and pulleys are all part of the adventure.

 I attempted the rocky climb at Debre Domo but the sole of my boot unglued.   Instead of the hike, I waited in the shade as a local construction worker mended my shoe with a long, hooked needle and a skein of strong thread.

I did manage several moderate hikes to the churches and was warmly welcomed by the priests and their families.

Here in Tigray (and later in Lalibela) the high quality of ancient African craftsmanship and artistic achievement are on display.  The churches themselves are not constructed of rock.   They are constructed within the rock.  ¹

The carved decoration on the walls, columns and ceilings are still clear and detailed.   Many of the frescoes have faded yet many have retained their original colors.  The paintings of Ethiopian saints and legends and the many Biblical scenes from both the Hebrew Bible as well as the Gospels are all bright and engaging.  The local priests proudly hold open their antique illuminated Bibles; the written passages and paintings are on pages of goat skin.

The driving distances between the sites are long and (to put it mildly) bumpy.  The hotel accommodations are modest at best.  Yet I endure.  More than endure.  I celebrate. 

Such mountains!  Rivers!  Farmlands!  The sky! 

The scenery itself provides its own religious experience. ²


¹ This ancient carving tradition is remarkably well-preserved and monumental in form elsewhere in Africa: e.g. Abu Simbel in Egypt and Petra in Jordan.

²At the Papyrus Hotel in Bahir Dar, I met a young British man.  He mentioned he was a geography teacher.  He confirmed my own observations of ancient volcanic activity here in The Horn of Africa. 

Plate tectonics, rifts and hot spots contribute to growth of the volcanoes.  Wind and rain create the scenery, the “celebration,” the “religious experience.”

For easy to read material about volcanoes, see the USGS website:

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