The greatest historical and cultural heritages of Ethiopia Tigrai
Tigrai, Ethiopia’s northern most regions, has more than 120 rock-hewn churches. It was in 1966 that Abba Josief Tewelde Medhin astonished many Ethiopianists by reading out the list of the churches. Before then, however, only two or three churches were known to scholars.
Rock hewn churches 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 180 x 140 kms. Ivy Pearce, one of the noted academic authorities in the field, writes, “the Tigre rock-hewn churches are more interesting to visit on account of the fact that one can see antiquity in people, things, places and ceremonies unchanged for over a thousand years.” She also ranked them as “the greatest of the historical- cultural heritages of the Ethiopian people.”
Gheralta, northwest of Mekelle, the capital of Tigrai, is the home of a quarter of the rock 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 rock churches of Tigrai.
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.
Georg Gerster, the Swiss photographer, in his book churches in Rock writes, “Gheralta with its ‘western film’ scenery of mountains seems to be a kind of Ethiopian Arizona An Arizona, however, without motels or desperadoes. But nevertheless an eldorado with the choice intellectual pleasure of constantly stimulation and satisfying the passion for discovers"
Gheralta can now be approached either from the town of Wukro, 47 kms north of Mekelle along the highway or from Senkata, 83kms along the same road. The important points in the area (Abraha Atsbaha, Degum, Megab and Hawzien) are now all connected by a new road and inaccessibility seems a fast forgotten thing of the past.
Saint Tekle Haymanot
The independent columns marked by capital like bosses, are wonderfully executed in a style found at no other place. The walls manifest a set of rectangle from shallow cuts topped by a sequence of designs fashioned to look like cement made tubes. The chamber left for the tablet has finely carved windows and special ceiling inscribed by a dome and cross- like decoration.
The church is situated at the southern edge of the town. Together with Degum and Berakit, this church is representative of the axumite type. This churche can be very old and possibly post – Axumite. The church is a union of a rock-hewn and stone built. The chiseled structure is so fascinating to take attention. Past a wooden door comes this small sized rectangular –shape house caved out of outcrop. The chamber holds six free standing and six more pillars merged with the rock.
It is located 25 km north east of Hawzien at an altitude of 2500m; this church is reached across country by 4WD. The set of the church allows one to view a vast filed lying below. The church is completely hewn from a living block of rock soaring high. It is embellished with various decorative designs. The chapel has a high ceiling and large interior which consist of 4 free standing and six non free standing pillars. All of the columns are vaulted in a manner to support the ceiling.
The church is beautiful enough to arouse excitation. The ceiling in the middle is exactly executed to have a cylinder – shaped features. It is also adorned with swastika incisions. The room where the tablet dwells has a dome-like roof. Eyesus Gwahegot, in addition to many expressive religious materials alike that of Debretsion of Gheralta ,has old and new ceremonial fun carrying the portraits of apostles, saints and angles.
The small town of Wukro is situated 47km from the capital of Tigrai, Mekelle. Wukro is the center of the tourist attraction situated on the Gulomekeda, Ganta Afeshum, Erob, Saesie Tsaeda Imba, Kilte Awlaelo and Atsbi Wenberta districts. It is a convenient base to visit the nearby attractions and the Danakil depressions. This cluster is one of most accessible attraction sites in the region. Here, there are plenty of rock-hewn churches and testimonies that are still vigorous places of worship and true testimonies to the country’s old legacy. The cluster is also rich in natural and cultural endowments.
Wukro Cherkos is situated around 200m from Wukro and the most accessible church. This crooked cruciform sandstone church is a three-quarters monolith and boasts beautiful cruciform pillars (notice the swirling sandstone laminate), cubical capitals
di Akaweh Archeological Site
The site of Meqabir Gaewa (Tomb of Gaewa) is situated in the eastern zone of the Regional State of Tigrai, 7km from the town of Wukro.The first test excavation was conducted by the Tigrai Tourism and culture Commission near the village of Adi Akaweh in a site known as ‘Mekabir Gaewa’ in oct.2007. As a result of the test excavation ancient objects such as a seated women statue and its base; an altar with Sabean inscription and a partially inscribed podium were found. In Oct-Nov 2008 a joint German and Ethiopian archeological project continued to survey and excavate and as a result more than twenty other potential sites were identified. According to the translation of the inscriptions by Prof.
Nobert Nebes the ancient Sabeano-Ethiopian kingdom of D’m’t, god Almoqah and for the first time the well-known pre-Axsumite temple, ‘Yeha’ are mentioned. On the basis of the inscriptions the objects were dated to 7th -6th century B.C. The Almoqah temple of Yeha is much larger than the Almoqah temple of Adi Akaweh but a good comparable one is the Almoqah temple in Melazo near Axum.
Abraha and Atsbeha
The wonderful rock-hewn church of Abreha and Atsbeha is situated 15 km west of Wukro along the gravel road which leads to Gheralta and Hawzien. It was supposedly ordered to be built in the 4th century by the two royal brothers, Abreha and Atsbeha (known in the west as kings, Ezana and Saizana), who who were responsible for converting Ethiopia to Christianity. The church is a large and cruciform in shape, with interesting architectural features such as cruciform pillars and step capitals. There is also well preserved 17th century paintings depicting Saints and Biblical scenes.
The church contains many valuable masterpieces including the beautifully decorated prayer cross, said to have belonged to Frumentius, the first Bishop of Ethiopia, whose ecclesiastical name was Abba Selama, meaning the father of peace. Many Ethiopians believe that the bodies of Abraha and Atsbeha are buried in the church. Thousands of Pilgrims make the journey to Abraha we Atsbeha every year Tikmt 4 (14th of October).
Negash is a small village located 60 km North of Mekele, the capital of Tigrai region. It lies on a flat topped mountain commanding a view of the spectacular mountains of Gheralta. It serves as enduring reminder of the warm welcome extended by the Ethiopian King to the followers of the prophet Mohammed in the 7th century. Since then, Negash has been a place of great historical and religious significance in a sense that it is a symbol of peaceful coexistence between Muslim and Christian religions.
Negash is regarded by Ethiopian Muslims as the second holiest place of Muslim world. Nowadays Negash is famous for the ornate white Arabic-style tombs of the first Muslim, and the recently built mosque, said to be on the site of the original mosque. An ancient cemetery has been uncovered, believed to contain the graves of those first Muslims refugees. There is an annual festival held at Negash, which attracts Muslim pilgrims from all over Ethiopia.
Atsbi and its Surroundings
It is located 18 km east of the town of Wukro. It involves a 10 minute climb. The church is carved out from the top of an isolated rock hill Mikael Barka is a three-aisled and three-bayed square church, 9m wide and 9m deep. Its ceiling decorated with a varieties of patterns, is supported by twelve columns four of which are free standing and cruciform in design.
The bracket capitals at different heights and the domes and the altars are skillfully excited. According to oral tradition, the edifice is believed to have been carved in 6th century under the auspices of Abune Abraham, an Ethiopian Saint. However, scholars believe the church to date to the 13th or 14th century.
Michael Imba (Tsaeda Imba)
The Tsada Imba escarpment dotted with various outcrops, lower towards west to allow construction of the Adigrat-Mekelle road which crosses Tekatesfai and Frewoini settlements. The site is easily visited, a day trip from Mekelle. It consists of three old churches and a new one, each very different and all within 2km of each other. The site is situated along Mekelle Adigrat road, 25 km after the town of Wukro, accompanies the road all the way to Frewoini.
To visit it by public transport, ask to be dropped at the sign post of the given sites. You can head out to the churches independently, but guides are essential as interpreters and help locate the priests who keep the church keys.
Debre Selam Michael
It is located about 11 km north east of Atsbi and involves a simple 20 minute ascent. Mikael Debreselam is undoubtedly the finest church in its architectural design. It is a church within a cave or as lvy pearce referred to it “a church with in a church”. The central door leads in to the anteroom with three huge built columns, a beautiful freestanding arch & built in the Axumite “Sandwich Style” of construction (a layer of wood then a layer of stone), comes in the view. The wood work of the door & window shutters is exquisitely decorated in geometrical patterns including swastika-like symbols.
Especially, the window shatter is decorated with very old cloth paintings of the Virgin Mary & child. The ends of the protruding part of the wooden beams are round in shape & their presence adds beauty to the church. It is also known for its wealth of paintings. Many faded murals can be seen on the walls & arches of the sanctuary the art influence, according to Pearce, is Byzantine.
The church, which is located to the west of Atsbi, is accessible by a 13km rough road. It is only 3 kms west of Debre – Selam. Altitude: 2800 m. Zarema Giorgis is a church enclosed by recently erected building. The safe church with rectangular ground and circular ceiling is made up of large block of stone intervened by fine woods. The access to the church where the sanctuary is housed has its sides fixed with incised boards.
Its fine wooden ceiling is supported by hewn pillars. Its architectural setting is so striking. According to Ruth Plant, the relic came in to being some times after the construction of Debere Damo monastery & before the start of hewing rock church.
Tsaeda Imba and its Surroundings
Medhane Alem (Saviour of the world church), can be reached through 25km Asphalt road and around 4km turning to the right on weather road. As you near the church you will have to climb up a slope of exposed sandstone.
It is about 15minute drive from Medhane Alem Adi Kesho and 5 minute drive from Petros and Paulos. The most striking feature of this church is to be found in the recessed ceiling just after entering the left hand door way. Axumite friezes approximately half a meter in height, decorate three sides of the recess.
Forming the dome of the recess is a beautiful, circular, shallow relief carved from the sandstone rock. Many bands of intricate circular patterns radiate out from an enclosed Greek cross at the center of the relief, the whole design resembling the decorated Tigraian circular bread loaf, the Himbasha.
Petros and Pawlos
It is situated in the same locality as Medhane Alem Adi Kesho. A ten minutes’ drive across fields brings you to this antique and is visible from the main road because of the White-washed façade. It is on the top of a bluff, reached by carefully climbing a rickety ladder and platforms placed against the cliff side. The architecture of this church is not very impressive. It does, however, boast some fascinatingly primitive paintings. On the walls and on the chamber antecedent to the Holy of Holies a number of striking paintings depicting the Madonna and Child, Angles, the Nine Saints, Christ resurrecting Adam and Eve and many other objects are found.
The church has not been used for several years because of it is difficult to reach. However, ‘Haleka’ Halefom Retta a peasant farmer from a near village started hewing another church of the same name below the original in 1982. “Saint Gebriel instructed me in my dreams and offered the endurance in carving this what seems super human structure” said Halefo
Adigrat and its Surroundings
Adigrat, the capital town of Eastern Zone of Tigrai, is located half way between Mekelle, the region’s capital city and Axum the countries star attraction. It lies at the junction of the Mekelle - Adigrat and Mekelle-Zalambesa roads. It is also renowned for the quality of its t'ej-mead or honey wine. The town also makes a good base from which to explore some of the northern rock-hewn churches of Tigrai. The busy market is definitely worth visiting. It’s good place to buy Tigraian coffee pots and local cloths as well as the nationally renowned honey that comes from Alitena. Chirkos church lies in the center of the town, whose interior is covered in fine 19th century paintings depicting Angeles.
The large dome on the skyline belongs to the Holy Savior Catholic Cathedral completed in 1916.Its Italian design with distinctly Ethiopian flavor; look out for the paintings by Afewerk Tekle. There is also an Italian war Cemetery 4Km east of the town at the village of Gola’a. It commemorates some 765 Italian soldiers, many of them caduti ignoti (the unknown fallen) the wars of 1935-38. The market is also worth a look out for locally produced pale honey, and the Beles (picky pears) are deliciously refreshing. Traveling south from Adigrat, look out for the attractive Tigraian stone farm stead with their dry-stone walls.
Anza (Baati Barud) Rock Art
The limestone cave of Anza is situated about 30km to the east of the town of Edaga Hamus in the escarpment. The paintings are found in a shelter, that is 30.40m in length, 3.5m in width and 3.85m deep (Agazi Negash, 1997). At least 30 cattle, 3 men, geometric figures and fat tailed sheep are depicted in the paintings.
Long horned cattle and milking scene are also represented in the same paintings. The paintings also depict two humans riding horses or donkeys carrying what appear to be spear and shield.
Monastery of Gundagundo
The monastery of Gunda Gundo is one of the oldest and famous monasteries of Ethiopia. To reach the monastery looks out for the signpost north of edge of Idaga Hamus. Follow 24Km along a road suitable for vehicle with 4 WD to north east of Idaga Hamus that leads to Geblen, a village situated on the verge of the escarpment. To reach there, it takes roughly 4-5 hours walk along a track. The land scape on the way to the monastery is very spectacular. The vertical mountains sites that follow the foot path exhibit an array of rock pinnacles. The church, the combination of two old mud houses, consists of 4 cruciform pillars and 12 circles.
The remarkable feature of this aging church is for its time honored parchments, crosses and crowns. According to the church officials, the monastery was built in the first half of the 15th by Abune Ezra. The monastery has a church that bears its name, Mariam Gunda Gundo, dedicated to St. Mary, but unfortunately female visitors are not allowed to the main church.
Debre Damo Monastery
On top of the amba there are two churches. The main one, 20m deep and 9m wide, was constructed under the auspices of Emperor Gebre Meskel, the Ethiopian king who reigned in the 6th century. The walls are constructed of stones and strengthened with longitudinal beams, which are themselves fixed to the walls with projecting woods otherwise known as “monkey heads” The walls of the church show resemblance to the decorative styles displayed on the obelisks of Aksum.
The monolithic pillars, the walls, the beams, the wooden doors and windows depict Aksumite architecture. The monastery of Debre Damo possess many treasures including ancient manuscripts, crosses, etc. visiting the monastery emotionally takes you back to the distant past of Ethiopian religious life. The second church is built on the eastern verge of the amba. According to local tradition, that very site is the spot where Abune Aregawi had finally vanished unnoticed, hence “Misiwarom’ (literally a place where he vanished from). It is a small church only frequented by hermits living on the Amba.
The top of the Amba (plateau) also commands magnificent views toward the Adwa Mountains to the west. The annual festival takes place on October24.
Female visitors are not allowed to the church.
Yeha “Temple of the Moon”
Yeha is located in the northern part of Ethiopia, 52 km south of Axum, It was possibly Ethiopia`s oldest major settlement.
Yeha is famous for its huge and remarkable temple. The temple is believed to date back to the 5th century BC. The imposing ruins of Yeha`s temple though roofless still stand. It was a large pre-Christian temple consisting of a single oblong chamber. The area of the remains of the temple measures 18.5m by 15m and its height stands at 12 meters. It is believed to be the oldest standing building in the country.
The town of Yeha is considered by archaeologists and historians to be the prime capital of the pre-Aksumite period. It holds many archaeological mysteries.
The surrounding area has yet to be fully excavated. No doubt, many archaeological mysteries are still hiding deep under the earth here waiting to be unraveled.
Beside the remarkable temple, a church dedicated to Abba Aftse stands. Abba Aftse was one of the famous nine saints who came to Ethiopia in the 6th century from the east Roman Empire to teach the Gospel. These Christian monks founded a number of important monasteries and churches in many parts of Tgrai. The church, sharing the same compound with the temple, is rectangular in shape. One can see several engravings of Ibex heads on the walls of the church and those suggest the sacredness of the animal. Enda Abba Aftse is also one of the wealthiest churches in terms of church treasures and manuscripts. Amongst the fine crosses is one which, according to the church officials, belonged to the founder of the church, Abba Afste, himself. Several beautifully decorated manuscripts, as well as numerous other priceless treasures are housed in the church.