In Ethiopia’s desolate northern Tigray region, the unique Gheralta mountains reach out to the heavens, the formidable peaks guarding almost inaccessible ancient churches hewn into the rock itself. Climbing may not be the first thing that comes to mind here, but doing so barefoot alongside the faithful hoping to get closer to God is a spiritual, as well as an adrenaline fuelled adventure.
I love climbing. I have scaled mountains from the Andes to the Himalayas, hung from a via ferrata in the Alps and even trekked across the infamous ring of fire in Indonesia, but nowhere on Earth has compared to the unique experience of climbing northern Ethiopia’s uncompromising Gheralta mountains to the famous rock hewn church of Abuna Yamata Guh..
It can be easy to dismiss Tigray’s rugged, desolate mountain landscape and pass it over for more popular sites like Lalibela. A two hour drive from the capital Mekele and surrounded for as far as the eye can see in every direction by complete untouched wilderness makes it clear that the area does not give up its beauty easily. The sheer heat can make the air difficult to breath, and the sand whipped up by the harsh winds even more so. The ground level hiking trails are an exercise in complete self imposed isolation and digitally detoxed solace, and at times your only companions are the distant howls of coyotes. But standing eternally guard over the landscape are the regions iconic limestone mountains, silent guardians of one of Ethiopia’s hidden gems.
The Mountain Churches Of Tigray.
According to legend, an orthodox priest travelled to the region sometime in the 5th Century ACE, some say to escape persecution, and others that he simply sought solace and isolation from the world in the desert. Wanting to be closer to God, the priest scaled the mountains and spent the remainder of his life carving out the church that later became known as Abuna Yamata Guh, dedicated to one of the nine saints of Syria, Rome and Constantinople.
Eventually other priests joined him and more churches were hewn into the rock, becoming one of the oldest and largest collection of rock hewn churches in the world.
For centuries, young boys and men have risked their lives climbing the sheer rock faces to get closer to God, to study scripture and some – quite often to escape an alternative of a life in poverty – to become priests themselves, the pilgrimage to the remote mountains a feat of both endurance and faith.
Climbing Abuna Yamata Guh.
Of all the churches in the region, Abuna Yamata Guh is the largest, most famous, and most difficult to get to. It is perhaps this remote inaccessibility that makes the church so special, and the feat of reaching it so rewarding. Local guides are available to take brave travellers up the same path as the faithful, both walking and climbing alongside each other, taking the same well worn paths and using the same hand and foot holds that have been worn into the rock by centuries of use.
The climb starts out as a relatively easy hike at the foot of the mountains. Other hikers and daytrippers occasionally pass each other, offering salutations in the heat and the shared experience of being in a remote location. These interactions get increasingly infrequent as the climb starts to get steeper and more difficult.
My local guides explain that the priest of Abuna Yemata makes this climb every single day, and given his advancing years makes me even more determined to not show how out of shape I was by controlling my breathing!
Eventually the hike starts to become more of an actual climb. The beauty of the landscape unfurls below you, the paths get thinner and thinner, the drop below increasingly sheer, and the nonchalant strides of the guides and locals who occasionally join us start giving a whole new meaning to faith. According to the present priest, the route is blessed by God, who saves anyone who falls by returning them on the wind to a ledge halfway down. Not that I’m one to contradict anyone’s belief, but I certainly wasn’t going to risk stepping off the ledge!
When it comes time to do the actual climbing part of the trip, there are ropes and harnesses available for tourists to use alongside natural hand and foot holds worn straight into the sheer rock face, but given that the guides and locals hop up from rock to rock with the confidence of a mountain goat, and a slightly emasculating dare from the guide, I kicked off my shoes and left them in the pile before beginning to climb myself.
That’s right, this final part of the climb is done barefoot.
Freeclimbing on a sheer rock face is an experience no one will ever forget in a hurry, and this section of rock has probably converted more people to a sudden belief in God than the Catholic church ever did! But the group of guides patiently watch over you, pointing to the exact hand and foot hole to use next and a local man behind me smiled and offered encouragement before hopping up behind me.
Eventually reaching a small plateau, barely big enough for a few people to sit on, I get a full glimpse of the famous view from Abuna Yamata Guh, and it is breathtaking in more ways than one!
The final ascent is done by the most treacherous part of the climb yet, a steep climb up a narrow path barely wide enough to stand on with an almost 1000 ft sheer drop to your side. The route is called the climb of faith for a reason, and locals say it is because no one has ever fallen on the way up or down because they are protected by God, but as nice a parable as it is it has to be more than that! The strength of faith it must take to undertake this journey every single day, never mind to have been the first to do it and carve out the church in the first place, must have been enormous! The locals that make this climb, young children and the elderly, families with babies on their back, even carrying the bodies of their dead to be prepared for burial, all do so out of sheer, unbreakable faith, and that is something to be admired! But with heart pounding from the strenuous exercise and the adrenaline pumping through your veins, you are finally met at the solitary church entrance by the priest himself, who welcomes you inside the cosy interior.
Standing in what is believed to be the highest church in the world, a small room that holds a replica of the lost ark of the covenant which is said to be in Axum and used for Holy Communion. I was lucky when I arrived to find hardly anyone else there. The natural rock floor of the church was covered in thick, comfortable rugs and the vibrant colours of the frescoes and paintings applied to the undulating curves of the natural rock danced in the flickering candlelight, the images themselves dating back to the birth of Orthodox Christianity in Ethiopia and depicting themes of the Old Testament, the colour and work perfectly preserved in the dry, arid air.
I’m not an overly religious man, but I am at heart a lover of both art and history, and to see the two disciplines combined in such a spectacular homage to faith and devotion is about as close as I can get to a divine experience.
The priest was eager to share his knowledge of the artwork, and brought out the holy book of Teamre Mariam, or St Mary, telling the gathered group of pilgrims and travellers the stories contained inside it. The book itself was a work of art, with intricate ink drawings on each page. I wish I could have held it to take my time leafing through its parchment like paper to appreciate each one, but it wasn’t my place to ask and I contented myself with just seeing what the priest chose to show us.
The sun had started to sink lower in the sky as we took our cue to leave, letting the priest prepare for his next service, and honestly thankful that I didn’t have to try that steep descent in the dark I still struggled, marveling at the confidence the locals had in taking the route as if they were on a relaxing stroll.
I’m more than used to spending a day climbing up, down and over mountains, but to get such a unique glimpse into a local way of life that has remained unchanged for over a thousand years was a true blessing.
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