Discovering the rock churches of Ethiopia's Gheralta Mountains

In Ethiopia’s northernmost region, the precipitous Gheralta Mountains are a formidable frontier. But hewn into them are ancient, inaccessible churches that make a challenging ascent all the more rewarding.Wednesday, 18 September 2019

There’s an internal battle raging inside me: on one side, my inner survivalist is trying to make me turn back while the adrenalin-fuelled fighter urges me on. Head and heart are in turmoil.

This is the part I call ‘too late to turn back’. Stretched flat like a starfish across a sheer rock face, I edge onwards, patting my hand along the wall to find the next hand grip, seeking a dash of comfort in the fact that it’s well worn — this route has been moulded by those who came before me. 

I’m but one of thousands who’s tackled the climb to Abuna Yemata Guh, which is itself one of a hundred or so rock-hewn churches hidden in northern Ethiopia’s rugged Gheralta Mountains. I’m following in the handholds of pilgrims and climbers; locals and travellers. Only the devoted would tackle this. I’ve just got to have a little faith, I tell myself — that’s what spurs everyone else on, after all. 

“We’re crazy in Ethiopia,” Tewe, my guide, yelps as he clambers higher and higher. Perhaps he is. As the head of the Gheralta Guides Association in nearby Megab, he often does this climb twice a day. Several feet below him, meanwhile, I pause to breathe — something I’m increasingly forgetting how to do as we climb — and continue my ascent. 

Though regular visitors clamber up with ease, travellers often climb this rock face wrapped in ropes and harnesses. However, Tewe has deemed me ‘young’ and ‘fit’ — something I rebuke as having no link to my climbing prowess, nor my courage. So, I’m freeclimbing under the watchful eye of a group of very patient scouts who point out the next handgrip, then foothole, then handgrip again until, after a few precipitous boulders at the top of the rock face, the most hazardous section of ascent is over. 

Now there’s just a narrow walkway between me and the church. Faith must be what propels people at this stage too. On one side, centuries-old sandstone worn smooth by passing hands; on the other, a sheer drop to the valley below. Tewe walks ahead unaided, unfazed. Just behind him, I cling to the wall like a gecko, shuffling timidly along the sheer pass.

But my persistence is paying off. Stretching out before me are views of the Gheralta Mountains and the flat plains that sprawl at their feet — a dusty landscape that’s often likened to the red desertscapes of the southern United States. Two hours away is Mekele, the nearest city and regional capital, but until then there’s nothing but vast, empty, unspoilt wilderness. 

Further south in Ethiopia, Lalibela — with its rock-hewn churches believed to date to the 12th and 13th centuries — is better known partly as it’s more accessible. Here in Tigray, in northernmost reaches of the country, however, only the determined reach these churches, hidden away in the mountains like ancient treasures.

But of all Tigray’s rock-hewn-churches, Abuna Yemata Guh steals the show, its reputation as one of the most inaccessible well earned. I’ve climbed up to three churches so far in this region, but none has tested me quite like this. And yet, despite its perilous access, it turns out to be the busiest. At the other churches, we don’t meet a single faranji (foreigner) — a word we come to know well as the Ethiopian children run from their houses shouting it, so scarce are well-trodden tourist trails in these parts. But here on Abuna Yemata, I’m not alone as I tackle the ascent. I meet Americans, Germans and French on my way up.

Ducking through the church’s tiny wooden door, I’m greeted by a cool, fresco-covered space. This quiet, majestic place of worship, believed to be the highest such site in the world, is here thanks to Father Yemata, a priest who carved it from the rock in the fifth century, supposedly to find divinity in isolation. As I admire the frescoes that have adorned the walls for hundreds of years, I feel part of his vision: part of the mountain, removed from the noise of life.

The air is dry when I return to ground level. Marmots whistle in the wind and tall cacti stand defiantly in the hostile, parched setting. But I haven’t come here for adventures on terra firma. Here, days are spent clambering up and down these edifices following in the footsteps of age-old local traditions.

 Tewe and I tackle another ascent, this time to the lofty plateau where the monastic churches of Maryam and Daniel Korkor sit. Skulls taken from burial chambers mark the entrance to Daniel Korkor where we meet a nun draped in yellow who, along with two monks, is one of the three people who’s made the plateau their permanent home. 

Wrapped in yellow, she points to her small eyes; Tewe tells me she can hardly see these days. Her modern-day aid to monastic life — a solar lamp — has run out and we’re here to bring her a new one. There are muttered thank yous and handshakes before she stands up to test out the new device. She’s barely more than four feet tall once she unfurls herself; more than 70 years spent up here on her haunches has warped the shape of her spine. I watch the little beam of light dance across the creases of her yellow-shawl-clad shoulders as she disappears into her cave for the night.

We take our cue to head back down the from the sun as it sinks slowly over the horizon. As we follow the fading light, a stream of locals cloaked in white passes us in the opposite direction, making the strenuous journey to the churches for a midnight service. 

Back at Korkor Lodge, where family-style dining brings together the area’s few international visitors, we sit and look up at the seemingly impenetrable mountains. From down here, as we share stories and plates of injera flatbread, all seems silent on the silhouetted peaks, although I think I can just see a flash of yellow.  

Three more Ethiopian adventures to try

Up high: Simien Mountains

Scale the ‘roof of Africa’ with hiking and camping adventures in this wildlife-filled national park. Base yourself at Limalimo Lodge and profit from expert advice, a comfortable bed and unparalleled sunset views.

Down low: Danakil Depression

At over 300ft below sea level, this place is often touted as the hottest on the planet. Conditions are tough, but it’s worth visiting to hike the Erta Ale volcano, explore the kaleidoscopic sulphur lakes and watch the sun set over the salt flats. ethiotravelandtours.com

Somewhere in between: Lake Tana 

The largest expanse of water in the country is speckled with campsites and islands that are home to centuries-old monasteries. It’s a sacred spot in Ethiopia and an important one in Africa as the source of the Blue Nile. toursbylocals.com

Essentials

Getting there
Ethiopian Airlines flies direct to Addis Ababa daily while Qatar, Emirates and Lufthansa offer indirect flights via Doha, Dubai and Frankfurt. Ethiopian Airlines flies daily from Addis Ababa to Mekele, from which it’s a two-hour drive to Megab, where tours depart. Average flight time: 7h30m.

When to go
November to April is the best time to visit with temperatures averaging 25C. The rainy season stretches runs from July to August, though the Ethiopian Highlands are much drier than the rest of the country. September sees the area full of wildflowers after the rains.

Published in the Adventure guide, distributed with the October 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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