Mekelle area, Tigrai and Gheralta area, The home of Rock-Churches
Tigrai, Ethiopia's northern most region, has more than 120 rock-hewn churches, some famous for their stone workmanship, ancient paintings and old manuscripts, and others known for their magnificent view and difficult ascent. Such great churches as Abune Yemata (Guh), Mariam Korkor, Debretsion (Abune Abraham), Yohannes Maequddi, Abune Gebre Mikael and Selassie Degum are in the very heart of Gheralta, making it the home of rockchurches of Tigrai.
The rock churches are found in Gheralta, Tsaeda Imba, Atsbidera, Haramat, Ganta afeshum, and in many other places scattered unevenly over an area of 180x140 kms. The Tigre rock-hewn churches are more interesting to visit to the fact that one can see antiquity in people, things, places and ceremonies unchanged for over a thousand years. They are the greatest of the historical cultural heritages of the Ethiopian people.
The scenery of Gheralta is spectacular. The view of the graceful Mount Gheralta and the far-reaching hawzien plain is a rare combination of extraordinary beauty.
Abune Gebre Mikael
The church of Abune Gebre Mikael is located a short distance south of Abune Yemata Guh, about 16 kms far. It is set upon the western side of Koraro, a long stretch of forest devoid red fašade sandstone escarpment.
Abune Gebre Mikael is one of the best and finest churches in Gheralta. The church, cruciform in design, is cut beautifully into a domelike rock. Its ceiling well decorated with cupolas is supported by carefully hewn 8 colomns and arches. Four of its pillars are incised with crosses.
The most little visited church has two wood-fitted doors and four windows through which the sanctuary receives enough light. Local tradition states that the reverent relic dates back to the 4th century.
The way to the sanctuary is itself memorable. The path, a steep climb passes through a split that forces a traveler some times to jump a slab of rock and crawl up below another one.
The interior part of the church is abundantly decorated with marvelous paintings and murals. Irrespective of its difficult ascent, the church amid awful environment and its wealth of murals is worth visiting.
Abune Yemata (Guh)
Abune Yemata is one of Gheralta's rock-hewn churches. It can be reached from the historic town of hawzien, turning off at the village of Megab, keeping the escarpment to one's left. A 4 kms drive from Megab and a further 30 minuts walk will bring you to the foot of the perpendicular rock mountians of Guh (name of the area) which appear as though they are pillars to the sky. The scenery is breathtaking. Megab is only 10 kms from Degum or 8 kms south of Hawzien.
The church is carved onthe cliff face of one of the mountains of Guh and there are no ropes, like at Debre Damo, for use inthe ascent. You can find only footholds and handgrips in the rock face. Just before the entrance to the church, there is a narow ledge carved in the cliff from which one can vew a sheer drop of approximately 800 to 1000 ft. That particular place is the most terrifying part of the ascent. An unusual church in the most unusual place, that place being majestic and awesome. The effort of ascending is rewarded by the well preserved paintings attributed to the 15th century. The interior of the church has 4 free standing and 6 nonfreestanding columns. It is 7,8 metres wide, 9,4 metres deep and 4 metres high. In fact, the church is not only known for its difficult ascent but also for its truly remarkable murals. It is colorfully decorated wall to wall by exciting murals of Old and New Testament stories. Nine of the twelve apostles are depicted in a round frame on the ceiling. Abune Yemata on his horse back is shown on one of the walls. The most sophisticated paintings found so far in Tigre.
It is surprising that such great works of art existed for centuries in such unusual place, which seems rather closer to the moon than to the earth. And it stands to reason that the so-called enemies of the church failed to reach it or never knew its very existence. It is interesting to witness people from all walks of life climb the church like spiders on the annual festival, witch takes place on the 8th of November in most years.
Debre Mariam Korkor is one of the many important shrines in Gheralta, is a rock church situated on one of the high mountains of Gheralta just overlooking the village of Megab, 8 kms south of Hawzien. An hour's climb from the village brings you to the church. Daniel Korkor, a smaller rock church, is a minutes walk apart. While climbing up to the church you have a panoramic view of Hawzien plain to the north and the east and the far of Imbasneity to the west. The church faces west and it has a white washed fašade of a built structure. It is one of the biggest and most complex rock-hewn churches of Tigrai. The interior of the church is 9,4 metres wide, 17 metres deep and about 6 metres high. There are 6 huge pillars, 2,4 metres apart from one another. The columns have bracket capitals and are cruciform in design. There are also a series of beautifully decorated arches. The arches and ceiling of the church are decorated with bas reliefs, some of them simular to those at Abraha Atsebeba.
Mariam Korkor is also rich in terms of ancient mureal. The walls and columns of the church are decorated with paintings with stories from both the Old and the New Testament. On one of the columns a magnificent painting depicting Archangel Raphael can be inspected. This particular painting is simular to the painting the the Cathedral Church of Faras.
The rock-hewn church of Yohannes Maequddi can be reached after about 40 minutes climb. It is situated on a plateau, east of Debretsion. The acces is narrow clef between bulging walls of bare, glaring sandstone. There are two entrance doors, both in Axumite-style of construction. The main entrance, which lies to the right of the main entrance, is for women. The sanctuary is so bright because of the abundant light that comes in through the window above the main entrance.
The church has a rectangular shape and its inside space measures about 13 metres deep and 10 metres wide. The height of the walls is about 6 metres. There are 4 freestanding pillars supporting the ceiling. The general layout of the church is diffent from that of the other rock churches.
The church is best known for its ancient and wellpreserved paintings. They are in a very good condition apparently because of the non-porous nature of the rock upon which they are painted. Among the many subjects these old magnificent painting depict are Adam, Eve and a serpent, apostle John, elderly men, Madonna and Child. Their flatness, simplicity, boldness of line, lack of shading and richness of collar are unique among the curches. Even their occasional geometrically patterned borders are wide, have flat colors and lack of intricacy of similar designs in other churches and manuscripts. The influence of the paintings looks Byzantine and Nubian.
Debretsion (Abune Abraham)
The church of Debretsion is not far from Degum, the village considered by many as the most appropriate camping place to explore the rock-hewn churches of Gheralta. Degum is 29 kms west of Wukro or 18 kms southeast of Hawzien. Debretsion can be approached from the southwest of the escarpment on top of which the church is situated. It is about 40 miniutes' walk from the foot of the escarpment or about an hour from Degum. Situated at the top edge of the escarpment overlooks Degum and the entire Hawzien plain.
Often referred to as Abune Abraham after the monk who founded it. Debretsion is a church entirely hewn from a living rock. It is rectangular in shape, 12,9 metres deep, 7,7 metres wide and high. Its ceiling is supported by six cruciform pillars and its three sides are surounded by a cloister.
The back walls of the holy of holies, the domes and the wall panels are abundantly decorated with fine paintings of saints and apostles. Especially the dome is beautifully adorned with patterns. Beause of the simplicity of the lines and colors the paintings are estimated to be of the 15th century although according to some the church itself is thought to be constructed in the 14th century. Even though it is amazing to learn that the paintings have survived to this day without receiving due care and protection, their color is now fading away at an alarming rate due to water seepage.
A 15th century unique circular ceremonial fan (one meter in diameter) with wooden framework makes the visit to this church special. Each of its 34 panels is finely painted with figures of apostles. There is also a small domed room considered to have served as Abune Abraham's prayer room. Its walls are decorated with many geometrical designs and saints. it is indeed a manifestation of the great stone workmanship that was prevalent in the whole of Tigrai both at that time and before. It is one of the great churches of Tigre, both from the architectural and devotional aspect.
A painting on the western wall shows the Virging Marry with a circle around her abdomen. This circle indicates the development of Christ in utero, witch was a common theme in the 17th century by Byzantine art. The church also has a wide collection of parchment manuscripts and crosses.
It is a smaller church with only two rooms. The ceiling of the domed anteroom is decorated with primitive paintings. From the passage that takes to Daniel Korkor one enjoys the magnificent veiw of the mountains of Gheralta as well as that of the Hawzien plain.