Tigray Rock Hewn Churches
Tigray is located in the Northern part of Ethiopia 783 km from Addis Ababa the capital city of Ethiopia, which is the Alpha and Omega of Ethiopia’s ancient and remarkable history, recognized as the birth place of Orthodox Christianity in Ethiopia.
Tigray is regions where over 120 Rock-Hewn Churches are found which are similar in design with those 11 churches found in Lalibela which are believed to have been created in the 12th century. However, the Tigray Rock Churches are considered to be older, dating from the 5/6th century. And most of these churches have never been visited by tourists because of that these churches are located on the top of the cliffs for the reasons of security.
These rock churches are found in 5 directions, in Gheralta the home of a quarter of the rock churches in Tigray (Abune Yemata, Mariam Korkor, Abune Abreham, Silassie Digum and others), TekaTesfay the place where 2 Caves and 3 Churches(Petros & Pawlos, Mikael Milhaizengi and MedhaniAlem Adikosho) are found, Atsbi (Mikael Imba, Mikael Barka, Mikael DebreSelam), Tembien (Abba Yohanni, Gebriel Wukien, Mariam Hibiito and Ammannuel Maibaha) and Wukro & its nearby attractions (Wukro Cherkos, Negash Mosque and Abreha we Atsebeha).
Following you find an example in pdf format for touring to the churches and a description of some of the 120!
Abune Yemata (Guh)
Abune Yemata is one of the most majestic and awesome churche in Gheralta a village called Megab. It can be reached either via Degum 10km before Megab or via the historic town of Hawzien 8km before Megab. And a 5km drive from west of Megab and a further 30 minutes walk to the foot of the perpendicular rock mountains of Guh (name of the area). The interior of the church can be reached after climbing 5m tall vertical ascent where there are no ladders; no ropes and no hope if someone fall, and pass by a most terrifying narrow ledge carved in the cliff which is approximately 250m to 300m high. This rock is notable for its extensive and perfectly preserved wall and ceiling frescoes of Old and New Testament stories, thought to date from the 15th century. The annual festival is taken place on the 8th November.
Debre Mariam Korkor
It is one of the biggest and most complex rock-hewn churches of Tigray situated in the village called Megab which can be reached either via Degum 10km before Megab or via the historic town of Hawzien 8km before Megab. About 1 and ½ hours walk and climb from the village it brings you to the white washed faced of a built structure church facing to the West. The interior part of this church is decorated with magnificent paintings such as paintings depicting Archangel Ruphael which is reported by Gerster to be “similar to the painting in the cathedral church of Faras”. And another painting on the Western wall shows the Virgin Mery with a circle around her abdomen which according Ivy Pearce indicates the development of Christ in Utero and such a theme was commen one in 17th century Byzantine art.
Daniel Korkor a smaller rock church with only 2 rooms which its ceiling of the domed anteroom is decorated with primitive paintings is a minutes’ walk apart.
Abreha we Atsbeha
Is one of the best and largest of the rock-hewn churches of Tigray situated 15km West of Wukro. Considered to be among the country’s earlist churches which is according to the local tradition the church was constructed in the 4th century, but some scholars estimated its date of construction to be on the 10th century but the certain is that it is built well before rock churches in Lalibela, where the level of sophistication of rock architecture reached its peak. This church is dedicated to the famous kings of Axum, the two brothers Abreha & Atsbeha who adopted Christianity in the 4th century. It is known for its extraordinary interior decoration as well as its magnificent murals from 17th century. It has a prayer cross which belongs to Abba Freminatos the 1st bishop of Ethiopia whose Ecclesiastical name was Abba Selama (father of peace). It is the site of annual pilgrimage (14th of October).
Wukro Cherkos is located in the northern edge of Wukro town which lies at 47km along Mekelle Adigrat road. It was carved during the 5th century. However, its existence for the abroad was 1st reported in England in 1868 by members of the Napier expedition who visited it on their way to Meqdella. The presence of a sand stone slab and its edifice shows a considerable resemblance with Abreha we Atsbeha and Mikael Imba churches that all have a cruciform plan and share Axumite architectural qualities that support the claim that the church dates back to Axumite period. The ceiling is beautifully decorated though fragmented and smock-blackened by the fire of Queen Judith of the 10th century. However there are a lot of beautifull Murals from 15th century depicting Angels & Saints. There are three Tabots/replica of the Ark of the Covenant/ dedicated to St. Mikael, St. Mary and St. Gebriel accommodated in the church.
Abune Abreham (Debretsion)
It is not far from the village called Digum which can be reached either via West of Wukro after 29km or 18 km Southeast of Hawzien. After 40 minutes gentle walk it can be reached on the top of the steep mountain. The church is entirely from a living hewn which is referred to as Abune Abreham, after the monk who founded it. The interior part of the church is decorated with fine paintings which are estimated to be from 15th century for the reasons of the simplicity of their lines and colors. But, according to some other writers and the church itself is thought to be from 14th century. It has a unique circular ceremonial fun with 1m diameter and wooden framework which its 34 panels are painted with figures of apostles from 15th century. And it also has a small domed room with decorated wall with many geometrical designs and carvings depicting Angels & Saints which is considered to have served as Abune Abreham’s prayer room. Its annual festival is taken place on the 21st of Hidar (30th of November in most years).
This church is located 29km far from Wukro in the southern edge of the village of Digum. With no need to climb and walk the church can be reached on the side way of the main road. This church belongs to St. Trinity; is large, double-tomb chamber has three ‘shelves’. Its interior part is decorated with a beautiful carving designs and old paintings.
Petros & Paulos
Petros & Paulos is a cave church which belongs to Peter & Pole situated east of a small village of Inda Teka Tesfay, 73km along the Mekelle-Adigrat road. And after 10 minutes drive across fields brings you to this antique which lies on the cliff side of the escarpment 2,740m above sea level which is visible from the main road because of its white washed faced. The ascent of the cliff face is difficult and terrifying with only finger holds and foot grips though not as terrifying as Guh in Gheralta. The church is partly built of wood, stone and mortar and partly a cave; where the Holy of Holies lies in this cave to the east of the small sanctuary. Architecturally this church is non-too important. But, its great quality of Murals and paintings depicting the Madonna and child, Angels, the Nine Saints, Christ resurrecting Adam and Eve, and many other subjects. Because of the difficulty in climbing and the openings created as a result of falling mortar allowing dusts and rain water washing away some of the paintings, a concerned citizen called Halefom Reta, a peasant farmer from the neighboring village carved a new monolithic rock church right at the foot of the escarpment which took him 12 years since 1982 to complete it single handedly. This probably Tigray’s last rock church hewer said that “St. Gebriel instructed him in his dreams and offered the endurance in carving this what seems superhuman structure”.
This is a rock church dedicated to St. Mikael situated in about 15 minutes gentle walk just south of the church of Petros & Paulos. This lies on 2760m above sea level on an isolated round hill. It has two wooden doors which are visible from the main road. This church has bells of stone hung in a tree just before reaching the churchyard where there are a number of graves and indigenous old tree and bushes inside. The most remarkable features of the church are its beautifully decorated dome with a Greek cross in the middle of it, ancient crosses, manuscripts, and books.
Medhanialem Adikosho is a rock-hewn church which belongs to Jesus Christ the savior of the world which can be reached after 20 minutes walk to the east of Mikael Milhaizengi. In the rock there are potholes which the local people believe to be the foot prints of St. George and his Horse. The exterior whitewashed front part of this church runs from the north end to the south end is decorated with beautiful patterns and the doors and windows of the church have massive, ornately carved wooden frames in Axsumite style and there are three-square windows on the top of this wall which is decorated with St. Andrew’s crosses. There are no paintings in the church however, the walls are hewn wonderfully. No academic authority has suggested a definite date of construction. However, according to David Buxton, considering its similarity with Debre-Damo this church is constructed in the late 10th or early 11th century, hence before Lalibela.
It is located in 18 km far, east of the town Wukro on the right side of the Wukro-Atsbi road. This church is one of the least visited and easily reachable churches in Tigray which is carved from the top of an isolated, roughly round hill. There are a number of graves and a few dwellings inside the churchyard. The church has a built faced which was built in 1967/8 according to the chief priest of the church. One can enjoy the bracket capitals at different heights and domes and alters which are executed skillfully and ceiling which is decorated with a variety of patterns in relief. This church is not known for its wealth of paintings but one can see number of murals depicting different kinds of subjects. According to the tradition the church was burnt by Queen Judith in the 10th century and its edifice is believed to have been sculpted in the 6th century under the auspices of Abune Abreham, an Ethiopian Saint. However, according to David Buxton, the correct date would be on the 13th or 14th century.
This church is situated 9km northwest of the town of Atsbi on the side of a mountain which is 2678m above sea level. The church is unique in its architectural design for being it is the church with in a cave. In the interior part of this church one can see three huge built colomns, a beautiful freestanding arch and a water catchment basin which are built in the Axsumite “sandwich style” of construction (a layer of wood the a layer of stone). The woodwork of the doors and windows of this church are decorated in geometrical patterns including Swastika-like symbols and a Lovely painting of Madonna and child on one of the windows shutter. This church is known for its wealth of paintings and Murals which influence the art of the Byzantine.
It can be reached either from Wukro, 45km from Mekelle, via Atsbi or from Agulae, 35km from Mekelle, via the small town of Haiki Meshal which is dedicated to St, Mikael lies on a flat-topped hill, 2300m above sea level. On either side of the church one can see large water catchment basins which the water is always on the same level according to the priests of the church. This church is known for its complex and skillfully designed interior decorations such as its geometrically patterned ceiling with its stepped capitals and its large Greek cross and also known for its wealth in church treasures and manuscripts. No academic authority has established the date of construction but according to the tradition it was built in the 4th century. However, David Buxton suggested that Wukro Cherkos, Mikael Imba and Abreha we Atsbeha are “posterior to Debre Damo” but “before Lalibela” (late 11th or early 12th century). The annual festival is taken place on the 12th of Hidar (21st of November on most years).
Abba Yohanni is a monastery which was named after the monk who founded it, situated in about 8km off the main road. Another local road goes to within a few meters of the foot of Debre Assa, the mountain on which the church is built. This church is accessible only through a tunnel-like passage on its west side which is built in 1972/73. This church is classic in its decoration and supreme in its workmanship that one can see the beautiful interior of the church which is divided into four bays (which makes the church in exceptional feature) and three aisles by its arched columns and ceiling adorned by domes which themselves are decorated by finely carved crosses. And one can see a few recent paintings in the masonry depict the twelve Apostles. The existence of this church to the outside world was first reported in 1928 (500 years after its construction) by the Italian traveler Dr. Enzo Parona. The annual festival takes place on the 5th of Hidar (14th of November in most years).
This church can be reached 16km North West of Abbi-Addi and some km across the field and further 10minutes ascent of the mountain side. One can see the graveyard and hanging stone bells on the northern side of the churchyard. This Architecturally interesting church has three aisles and four bays and remarkable features such as it is well-carved, has interesting details (which makes some to compare it with Mariam Wukro of Imba Seneyti and Medhanialem Adi Kosho of Tsada Imba), has six massive, and finely hewn freestanding pillars and three cupolas. On the date of construction of the church, Even if there was a gap between the tradition and the scholars that the tradition has it as it is built during the reigns of Atse Dawit (1382-1411) and Atse Zera Yacob (1434-1468), finally they reached in a perfect agreement that it was from 15th century.
This church can be reached after 40 minutes gentle walk east of a small village called Adiha 15km southeast of the town of Workamba (18km North of Abbi-Addi). Until one can approaches to within few meters, the church is not visible just like its name Mariam Hibiito (the Hidden Mary). In many aspects this church resembles to Medhanialem Adi Kosho based on this David Buxton suggested that this church is constructed after Medhanialem Adi Kosho and according to the tradition, it was built during the reign of Atse Zera Yacob in the 15th century. The exterior part of this church is easily imaginable that the carvers spent much time to beautify it and runs from the South end to the North end. In the interior part of the church one can see an unfinished dome-making and a pool of water which is always at the same level and its therapeutic effects are beyond belief, according to the priest of the church.