|Tigrai, Ethiopia’s northern most region, 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.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 Ethipian 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.
|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 29kms 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 minutes 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, 12.9m deep 7.7 wide and high.Its ceiling is supported by six cruciform pillars and its sides are surrounded 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. Ruth plant, the author of The architecture of the Tigre described the paintings as “enjoyable”.
“When we did enter we were astonished at he beauty of this church and its many murals,” reports Ivy Pearce. Because of the simplicity of the lines and colors the paintings are estimated to be of the 15th Century although according to some other writers 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 with out 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 carvings in relief depicting angels 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. According to Ruth plant, it is “one of the great churches of Tigre, both from the architectural and devotional aspect.”
The annual festival takes place on the 21st of Hidar (30th of November in most years)
| Debre Mariam Korkor, described by David Buxton, the author of ‘ The Rock-Hewn and Other Medieval Churches of Tigre Province, Ethiopia’, as “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, 8kms 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 a visitor enjoys the panoramic view of Hawzien plain to the north and the east and the far off Imbasneity to the west. The church of Mariam Korkor faces west and it has a white washed façade of a built structure. It is one of the biggest and most complex rock- hewn churches of Tigrai. The interior of the church is 9.4m wide, 17m deep series of beautifully decorated arches. The arches and ceiling of the church are decorated with bas reliefs, some of them similar to those at Abraha Atsebeha. Mariam Korkor is also rich in terms of ancient murals. 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 reported by Gerster to be “similar to the painting in the Cathedral Church of Faras”.
Another painting on the western wall shows the Virgin Marry with a circle around her abdomen. This circle, according to Ivy Pearce, indicates the development of Christ in utero. She further went on to state that such a theme was a common one in 17th Century by Byzantine art. Ruth Plant corroborates that the paintings of this church are reminiscent of Byzantine art. Moreover, Plant observed variations in the styles of the paintings in the church and was led to believe that “at least three painters have been at work.” The church also has a wide collection of parchment manuscripts and crosses.
Daniel Korkor 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 view of the mountains of Gheralta as well as that of the Hawzien plain.
| The rock-hewn church of Yohannes Maequddi can be reached after about4O minutes’ climb. It is situated on a plateau, east of Debretsion. “This church of St. John,” reports David Buxton, “is the most interesting I have seen and is memorable, too, for its means of access which 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 13m deep and l0m wide. The height of the walls is about six meters. There are four freestanding pillars supporting the ceiling. According to Ruth Plant, the general layout of the church is different from that of the other rock churches.
If I thought that the other churches had a reverent and holy atmosphere, this one more so”, writes Ivy Pearce. She adds, “So sacred did this church seem to be that while we were inside taking many flash pictures of the screws of murals on the walls, we were talking to one another very quietly”
Yohannes Maequddi is best known for its ancient and well- preserved paintings. Ruth Plant referred to them as “strangely pleasing primitive paintings”. Ivy Pearce on her part writes, “The church of Yohannes Maequddi in the Gheralta region of Tigre has crude and quite primitive paintings, quaint and attractive, different from any other church in Tigre”.
They are in a very old manuscripts condition apparently because of the non-porous nature of the rock upon which they are painted.
Among the many subjects these old magnificent paintings depict are Adam, Eve and a serpent, apostle John, elderly men, Madonna and Child. Dale Otto, one of the members of the Pearce’s pilgrimage to the rock-hewn of Tigre, remarks, “Their flatness, simplicity, boldness of line, lack of shading and richness of collar are unique among the churches we visited. Even their occasional geometrically patterned borders are wide, have flat colors and lack of intricacy of similar designs in other churches and manuscripts.”
She is of the belief that the primary influence of the paintings are Byzantine and Painting Nubian.
|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 fijrther 30 minutes’ walk will bring you to the foot of the perpendicular rock mountains 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 on the cliff face of one of the mountains of Guh and there are no ropes, like at Debre Damo, for use in the ascent. You can find only footholds and handgrips in the rock face. Just before the entrance to the church there is a narrow ledge carved in the cliff from which one can view a sheer drop of approximately 800 to l000ft. That particular place is the most terrifying part of the ascent. Ivy Pearce, one of the first few westerners to visit the site, gives her account of her visit. I climbed up some pretty stff stuff and then came face with only footholds and handgrips at irregular intervals. This climb 1 could not manage as my arms were not long enough to reach the next handgrip to let my foot go to find the next foot grip to let my foot go to grasp firmly with my small hands. I didn ‘t want to take risks, so gave ii up and sat on a small ledge below.
Ruth Plant on her part described the church as “. . . the most unusual church in the most unusual place, that -place being majestic and awesome” The effort of ascending, however, is lavishly rewarded by the well preserved paintings attributed to the 15th century. The interior of the church has four free standing and six freestanding columns. It is 7.8m wide, 9.4m deep and 4m 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’s back is shown on one of the walls. Plant described the paintings as Painting “the most sophisticated paintings found 7 so far in Tigre.”
It is indeed surprising to learn that such great works of art existed for centuries in such “unusual place” which seems rather closer to the moon than to 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 which Stakes place on the 8th of November in most years.
|Abune Gebre Michael|
| 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 façade sandstone escarpment.Abune Gebre Michael 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 eight columns acl 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 A.D.
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.
Source: Tigray Tourism