Saturday, June 13, 2015

Climbing to Faith in Ethiopia

A footpath leads to the cliff-top church of Abuna Yemata Guh in Tigray, northern Ethiopia.
Living in Kenya, and traveling throughout Africa, you tend to become accustomed to quoted prices for trips and excursions ballooning through a number of unstated, hidden costs. Guides are extra, sometimes you have to pay for fuel. Every trip is different, but normally you will be asked to pay more.

A scout working to help visitors up the sheer 20ft wall leading to the church known as Abuna Yemata Guh in Tigray, Ethiopia, extends his steady hand to aid in the climb. The church was founded in the 5th century, and was carved into a monolithic rock face 2,500ft above the valley floor by hand over 200 years.

So when I embarked on a day trip to the Gheralta Mountains in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, I expected to pay a bit above what was originally agreed. However, when my guide showed up and asked me to rent a climbing harness and ropes, I was surprised, as I had no idea I was about to embark on some real mountain excursion. This was not the type of extra cost I was expecting.

A covered window at the rock-hewn cliff-top church of Abuna Yemata Guh in Tigray, northern Ethiopia.

I was headed to Abuna Yemata Guh, an Ethiopian Orthodox church buried in the Gheralta Mountains north of Mekele. It was said there was some climbing involved, but ropes and a harness imply more than just scrambling on rocks. As an avid rock climber myself, I wasn’t worried, just excited for the adventure to come. I was also surprised this little side trip wasn’t more promoted.

A young priest of just 24 years stands in the entry-way to the Abuna Yemata Guh church in Tigray, northern Ethiopia. The church was hand-carved into a monolithic rock spire 2,500 feet above the valley and is only accessible by scaling vertical walls and traversing 600 foot cliffs.

In most guide books, Abuna Yemata Guh, and the churches in northern Tigray, are just a paragraph. They are significantly less well known than the famous churches in Lalibela. In fact, the trip wasn’t even recommended to me, I had to go and ask the local travel agency for the details. Most people come and go through Mekele to visit the Danakil Depression. They usually start and end their trip in the city, spending bookend nights in the hotels before jetting back south. This is a mistake.

A holy book is held open by a priest inside the cliff church of Abuna Yemata Guh in Tigray, northern Ethiopia.

The church of Abuna Yemata Guh, I found, is spectacular. It is located in the middle of a monolithic rock spire 2,500 feet above the desert in Tigray. But unlike normal buildings made of bricks and mortar, this church was hand-carved into the rock over the course of 200 years, starting in the 6th century. It is a church and at the same time a man-made cave. Its paintings and frescos are hundreds of years old, if not more than a thousand. And the climbing is real. After an hour-long hike across the desert and up to the base of the spire, there is a 20 foot vertical section of rock that must be scaled before crossing a ledge that features a rock wall on one side, and a 600 foot drop on the other. Shoes cannot be worn at the monastery, but foot and handholds are solid, having been worn deeply and smoothly into the rocks over more than 1,500 years.

A young priest stands in the doorway to the Abuna Yemata Guh church, perched roughly 2,500 feet above the ground. Began in the 5th century, it took 200 years to carve into the rack face by hand, and has served as a holy monastery for those following the Orthodox faith of Ethiopia.

Climbing to the church, it’s impossible to not feel a connection to the rest of humanity. This little church - the inside is not more than 30 feet long by 25 feet wide – has existed just like the rock from which it was painstakingly hewn. It has surpassed dynasties and wars, the formation of countries and the rise and fall of governments. By placing your feet into the holds in the rock, you are literally walking in the footsteps of 1,500 years of faithful history.

A young priest at the Abuna Yemata Guh church in northern Ethiopia looks out over the view from just below the entrance to the church carved 2,500 feet above the valley into a monolithic rock face.
Looking out on the spires of the Gheralta Mountains from the mouth of the church you have a first-hand view of the majesty that is this world. The passage of time, explicitly visible as sun and shadow play their daily game of cat-and-mouse, makes you feel both incredibly insignificant, but incredibly powerful. You understand that while your role in this world may not be large, you’re a part of it nonetheless, a part of this unending dance of magnificence, grandeur and splendor. While I’m not an overly religious person, I do understand how others would find God in this place.