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Photo story: a testament to faith and devotion in Ethiopia's rock churches

The rock-hewn churches of Tigray in the Gheralta Mountains have their roots in an age of desert monasticism — it was here in the sub-Saharan kingdom of Aksumite that Christianity was adopted as the state’s sole religion in the fourth century.

By Nigel Pavitt
photographs by Nigel Pavitt
Published 28 Feb 2020, 07:00 GMT
The domed ceiling at Mikael Milhayzenghi cave church, excavated from solid rock about the 8th century. ...
The domed ceiling at Mikael Milhayzenghi cave church, excavated from solid rock about the 8th century.
Photograph by Nigel Pavitt

In the fifth century, nine monks from Byzantium arrived in the northern Ethiopian city of Aksum and, together with their disciples, ventured deep into the mountains to develop the art of excavating monolithic churches. One of the monks, Abuna Yemata, carved a cave into the needle pinnacle of Guh. Despite the hazardous ascent, young and old worship here each Sunday. The church of Maryam Korkor was excavated later, in the 13th century. Here, prayer sticks are widely used by the congregation to lean on during long religious services.

A priest stands outside the entrance to the church of Abuna Yemata, which was carved into a sandstone pillar around the sixth century.
Photograph by Nigel Pavitt
A Coptic priest outside the huge wooden doors of the semi-monolithic 10th-century church of Abraha Atsbeha.
Photograph by Nigel Pavitt
Two Tigrayan women walk along a narrow ledge towards the ancient rock-hewn church of Abba Daniel Korkor seemingly oblivious to the three-hundred-metre precipice to their right.
Photograph by Nigel Pavitt

An Orthodox priest wrapped in a white shawl stands on a ledge close to the church of Abuna Gebre Mikael, which sits on a lofty plateau 1,500ft above the rolling scrubland and russet sandstone spurs of the desert plains. The route to this lookout involves leaping across gaps and scrambling up a steep gully — such trials are considered a show of faith.

An Orthodox priest close to the church of Abuna Gebre Mikael.
Photograph by Nigel Pavitt
Many ancient rock-hewn churches are situated in the ruggedly beautiful red sandstone Gheralta Mountains.
Photograph by Nigel Pavitt

The important monastery of Debre Damo is one of the oldest and most inaccessible centres of Christianity in the country. It was founded by one of the nine monks, Abuna Za-Mikael, who’s said to have ascended the sheer-sided plateau on the back of a python. Only men are permitted to climb the plaited leather ropes to visit the holy site, which is home to some 150 self-sufficient monks. The domed ceiling at Mikael Milhayzenghi cave church resembles himbasha, Tigray’s traditional round flatbread. 

Debre Damo, one of the most inaccessible centres of Christianity in Ethiopia.
Photograph by Nigel Pavitt
An Ethiopian Orthodox monk climbs up to the ancient Monastery of Debre Damo, which can only be visited by men.
Photograph by Nigel Pavitt

A priest reads a manuscript by the light of a doorway in Wukro Maryam church, which was excavated between 1350 and 1450 — although some historians claim certain features date back 2,000 years. The church was once surrounded by troglodyte hermitages and drew its wealth from the salt caravan route; its name comes from the word ‘wkr’, meaning ‘to dig’ in the local Agaw language

A priest in Wukro Maryam church.
Photograph by Nigel Pivett

View more pictures in our photo gallery:

Published in the March 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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