8 – The Rock-Hewn Churches of Tigray

8 – The Rock-Hewn Churches of Tigray

A few hours of bus ride later, we arrived in Hawzien. This village (made up of two main roads with houses gravitating around them) is often used a base for exploring the rock-hewn churches of Tigray. There are roughly one hundred and twenty churches in the area, famous for being carved into the mountains. According to historians, they were built between the ninth and fifteenth centuries, probably to hide from Muslim invaders.

After spending a couple of nights in a hostel in Hawzien, we decided to camp near the churches so we could access them easily. We contacted a lodge in the area to see if we could camp on their grounds. Unfortunately, they said it was no longer possible. We concluded we would camp nearby.

Heather matching the hostel in Hawzien 😁
Our favourite meal in Hawzien. A sort of curry made from chickpeas with bread instead of injeras!

A bajaj and a short walk later, we arrived at the lodge and were served a “Western” meal. Starter, main and most importantly, DESSERT! Ethiopian cuisine is delicious, though it lacks sorely in desserts. They may even be non-existent as when we ask if they have pudding in restaurants, they offer us a sugary tea.

In exchange for having had lunch at the lodge, the manager said we could leave our bags with them for the day and night. Our bellies were full, and our bags safely stored away, so we set off for two nearby churches: Maryam Korkor and Daniel Korkor. We had heard they were two of the most impressive churches in the area. Our guidebook said they were easy to access and didn’t mention any cliff climbing, as it did for others (we’ll come back to this).

Once on the road, we easily found the path towards the mountains. The landscapes around us were stunning. In the background; mountains that looked like they had been painted on. In the foreground; pastures so green after the rainy season. We crossed small tef, wheat and sweetcorn farms, soon to be harvested. We shared the path with two boys taking their goats to a nearby pond to drink. The birds were gorgeous (multicoloured and all different sizes), we wished G’ma could see them too. The path got steeper, though as expected, it was nothing strenuous.

The path to the mountains

After walking for about half an hour, we came across a lady perched at the bottom of a tree, selling entrance tickets for the churches. We paid the three hundred birrs requested (£8.12). Beside her, two men offered their services as scouts (guardians who will offer protection in exchange for money).

In this region, for a small price, everyone offers to guide you to the churches (even ones that you can easily find yourself). Determined not to be ignorant tourists, we refused their offer and walked on. Plus, the GPS indicated that the churches were super close by.

A little further along, one of them ran after us. He insisted, telling us that locals can be aggressive towards tourists and that we needed a guardian. When he lowered his price to a mere one hundred and fifty birrs (£4,06), we told ourselves perhaps it would be better having him by our side to avoid being chased by hordes of children. We ended up accepting his offer. Little did we know, it was the best decision we made all day. Plus, his name was Abraham…very fitting indeed!

The hill quickly got steeper and our pace with Abraham got quicker. The path was more like a staircase of rocks wedged in a narrow gap between two vertical rock walls. Hmm, not quite the leisurely walk we were expecting. The climb was tiring but we managed without struggling too much.

Good job we haven’t had too much pudding lately

We took a break at the top of the hill in a little cave. We hoped this wasn’t one of the churches, as it was rather disappointing. Abraham reassured us, the churches were yet to come. He pointed above our heads, indicating we still had to climb further. But where? How?

The cave with the climb behind

He led us to a tiny passage between two rocks – impossible to find unless you knew it was there. We continued a few metres and then the “path” completely disappeared. In front of us was a wall of rock. Thanks to the many pilgrims who have passed this way, there were a few foot-holds dug into the rock, but it was still slippery. Abraham gave us a helping hand when we needed it. Next, we followed him onto a ledge way on the side of the mountain. The path was a distant memory. We climbed another cliff face, trying not to look down at the drop below us, focusing on where we were putting our feet rather than how scary it was! An hour and a half after setting off, we arrived at the summit. We were pretty tired and had one or two words to say to those who had said the walk was a doddle!

Yep, that’s the path. You can see the foot-holds

There, we caught our first glimpse of Maryam Korkor church. It’s mainly white and is built into the mountainside. We thought back to our GPS at the beginning of the route. It was right, the church was nearby… five hundred metres above our heads! The outside was cute, like a mini house. In the garden were colourful tombstones. The priest was waiting for us outside. He wore a long indigo robe, a white turban on his head and held a large gold cross in his hand. Without opening his mouth, he invited us to enter: to the left was the entrance for men and to the right, an entrance for women. Abraham called out to us at the last minute and told us to take our shoes off. Did he not know how stinky our feet were?

Maryam Korkor
Us infront of Maryam Korkor.

Inside it was cool. This small space carved entirely into the rock left us speechless.  It was probably about fifteen metres long, eight metres wide and five metres high. Several pillars carved into the rock supported the ceiling. The walls were adorned with centuries-old rock paintings. We stayed for a while, admiring the magnificent handiwork.

Our guide took us to the other church a little further on: Daniel Korkor. To get there, we walked along the edge of a five-hundred-metre-high cliff. The view was breath-taking. Mountains and fields could be seen for miles.

Arnaud on the ledge, metres away from Daniel Korkor

And there, not even two metres away from the drop, was a miniscule wooden door in the mountainside. Again, we took our shoes off. We had to squeeze ourselves through the door frame to enter the church. This really was the church! It had been carved directly into the mountain.

The entrance to Daniel Korkor. You can see the speaker which blasts the Priest’s prayers out everyday

Our eyes adjusted to the dim light. We found ourselves in a small square room, decorated with beautiful old paintings on the walls. They showed various saints, biblical scenes (John the Baptist, Mary with baby Jesus) and the four evangelists. We remained speechless. To think that people went to the very top of this mountain to dig out the rock so they could exercise their faith in such a remote place, is very moving. What a mammoth task! Even the fact that people still make the effort to come here to worship is incredible.

Abraham admiring the view

We squeezed back out the tiny door and began our descent. Between the two churches was a little farm. There were even cows there! The biggest mystery of the day: how did they get there?!

The farm
Climbing down. It doesn’t look very far/steep in the photo but if you look closely in the top right corner, you can see a group of people – giving you a better idea of the scale!

Our journey down was a lot quicker than on the way up, however the rocks would sometimes slide, so we still had to be cautious. We went back to the lodge to have an ice-cold beer overlooking the mountain we had just climbed. We then pitched our tent. At first, we placed it near the road, but we soon gained unwanted attention. People came to tell us that this spot wasn’t safe and that we should pay them to watch over us.

We decided to move our tent next to the lodge entrance. That way we wouldn’t be hassled by anyone and the lodge’s guard would keep an eye on us. The night turned out to be peaceful, even if we didn’t get much sleep. We woke up at dawn the next day as we wanted to take our tent down early and because we were unsure of our plan for the day. There was another church which we fancied visiting (Abuna Yemata Guh). After reading up on this church, we decided not to go there. It’s difficult to access and it’s not sure women can enter. It would have been a shame to make the effort to climb up the cliff, only to have been rejected at the entrance. Watch this BBC clip to see this crazy church: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r1QXpmv-y2E

A much better camping spot than our first!

We decided rather to continue our journey towards the North, to Aksum.

6 Replies to “8 – The Rock-Hewn Churches of Tigray”

  1. Another interesting adventure!!

    Your brain must be hurting learning/experiencing/feeling\seeing so much!
    And just love how the tent keeps popping up! 🙂

  2. A real cliffhanger this time. Much ♥️Thank you for inviting us to journey with you. Loving the updates. Lxxx

  3. God Bless Abraham for being your guardian angel this day 🙂
    My goodness, what magnificent scenery and hard won rewards for all your efforts! John the Baptist painting is fabulous. Loving Heather’s hostel matching outfit! So wonderful to see you both looking so well. Keep holding on tight to each other. Much love from us all on the rapidly cooling island we call home. xxxx

    1. I just had another look at these pictures – the scenery really is absolutely stunning!
      Lots of love, Dad. XXX

  4. Spectacular and inspiring! ..and lovely interesting & challenging journey to these special churches..

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