We had only driven out of Axum for about 90 minutes – I was laying spread out across one of the bench seats, taking advantage of our massive luxurious van for just the two of us – when Mike told me to get up and look out of the window. This is what I saw.
The geography in this area of Ethiopia is astounding. A huge pink and orange rock escarpment with towering sandstone cliffs and mountains that are reminiscent of Utah, Arizona’s Monument Valley, North Western Australia and Namibia to mention a few similar places. This is all just wonderful – BUT! They sold me this trip to see CHURCHES??????!!!!
It blows my mind that the tour company who markets this particular route only focuses on the historic churches that we would get to see. No mention is made of the views, or the trekking opportunities. All that was said was that a few of the churches on day two required a little bit of clambering to get to. This was a huge understatement, both in scope and in practical terms.
I had agreed to make our first stop the monastery of Debre Damo – which only allowed for male visitors. In fact, the monks only allowed male cows, chickens, donkeys and any other livestock they needed for their purposes to be provided for their day to day needs. I’m guessing female cows would be just too much of a powerful temptation for them, living all alone at the top of a monolithic mountain?
The fun part of visiting this monastery is that it involved a near vertical 15 m rock climb where the priest assists the person climbing via a rope around the waist. Mike is a little afraid of heights, so I was super proud of him for wanting to give this a go. Plus, I wanted everything documented on camera in case something funny or super embarrassing happened to him on the way up or down.
Fortunately for me, I got both.
Enjoy this wonderful video footage of Mike being aided down the rock, and toward the end, not even being allowed to place his feet to steady himself: https://youtu.be/xWNVzRtlYG8
After a nice lunch, our next stop was located at the end of another stunning drive through the magnificent countryside, and according to the guidebook, one of the most scenic roads in the country. There was a complex of 3 churches called the Teka Tesray cluster, but we’d been advised to just visit the most beautiful – Medhane Alem. As we approached the trailhead (because, yes, you have to hike to each of these churches as they’ve been built literally into the rock/mountain) we were swarmed by a bunch of kids wanting to make some quick birr to show us the way. We chose one competent looking enough chap and we made our way through the late afternoon sun up the steep sandstone cliffs to the church – which was about 30 minutes away.
What made this particular location a little unique was that we were surrounded by a beautiful variety of cacti, eucalyptus trees, and green, rolling hills. It reminded me of a fragrant late afternoon in Tuscany – except without the olive trees. We entered the gated entrance with its standard issue crowd of elderly shawled folk who seemed to “live” at the church and beg for money. We were told to remove our shoes and make our way through the dirty and rocky garden area leading to the white rock-hewn church – and I just couldn’t understand why they didn’t just let us remove our shoes at the doorway – thereby ensuring we didn’t bring the dirt and dust inside the church with us. I asked this of our guide and was informed that the rocky path was already “holy land” which appeared to be more important than whether or not it was clean.
The inside of this 6th century church was very cool and carved out in one giant piece, consisting of 4 inter connected rooms containing mosaics, remnants of religious artwork depicting the angels and the apostles, and of course, the holy of holies that contained a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, in line with Ethiopian Orthodox teachings.
As usual, the outside and surrounding scenery was more fascinating to me than the inside of the church, where it was hard for me to not be preoccupied with how old the carpet was and how many thousands of dirty feet had walked here since it was last replaced.
Having said that, the feat of work this represented and the age of the church itself was pretty staggering. I think when you’re dealing with architecture this ancient, it is really hard for a layman to determine the actual talent that may or may not be involved in its creation, based purely on its age.
As with many of these very very old churches – the guides often claimed that the only explanation for their creation at a time when technology was so limited was that they were made with the assistance of the angels. These explanations are given entirely with a straight face, I might add.
Making our way back to the van as the sun was setting was rather magical and I managed to get some nice sunset shots. Why is it we never tire of a beautiful sunset?
That night we stayed in a small town called Hawzen. It took visiting four hotels before Mike and I found one with an available room that had hot water in the bathroom – the Habesha Hotel. We soon headed out in search of a restaurant our driver had recommended, and when we did finally find it – it turned out it was only serving fasting food. It’s funny to me how excited the restaurant staff are to tell us that their menu doesn’t contain any dairy, meat or animal fat of any kind – but it’s clearly because they don’t realize that hearing such news is an instant disappointment for me.
I settled on ordering some vegetable soup and beer. And eating some rice off of Mike’s plate, of course.
Our second day in Tigray was definitely the highlight. This is in spite of the horrendous hassle we had to overcome in locating a scout for each of the two churches we hiked to – you can read about the first instant in my former post here. Despite this, it was easily my favorite day of the entire trip – perhaps since the scenery, degree of difficulty, and the steep ledges we had to scramble over to reach these churches built on top of mountains was altogether unexpected.
Our first visit was to a church called Abuna Yemal, which, funnily enough – was featured in a BBC article about the priest having what was claimed the “most difficult commute in the world.” The route was a tough scramble, possibly a technical enough route that a harness and rope would be called for were it in the States – but I certainly enjoyed the adrenaline rush that came from trying to find foot and hand holds (and doing so in the midst of yelling at the bunch of super annoying men, dressed in SUITS I might add, to shut the hell up as they threw out constant muttered directives of how and where I should climb, assuming I was a complete idiot who’d never scrambled before.)
I was, however, filled with more than adrenaline when one of these douche bags (who expect tips even though you never asked for help, in fact, when you had actively told them to go away multiple times) actually down climbed right over the top of me and stood on my hand. I screamed at him, in a terrified rage, for committing the ultimate rock climbing faux pas – though I’m not sure he really gave a shit.
It did end up being totally worth it – and the views from the teeny tiny ledge that led to the church were stupendous. Hopefully you can get some idea from these pictures.
Again, the church was a nice cherry to find at the top of this climb, but the journey was reward enough in itself.
This first church was about 3 hours return, and it was well past lunchtime by the time we got back to the van. I cursed not having known about the number of hours we’d be hiking today, and I cursed our guides/drivers for not telling us to pack a lunch with us to help fuel us for the afternoon’s venture out to Maryam Kokor – which was going to take us another 3 arduous hours to climb and return from. Luckily, Mike had some chocolate in his pack and Sneetchi gave us some bananas…so we managed fairly well despite our outputs. It’s just that this was clearly not the first time this company had brought tourists to these places – so why can’t they advise this ahead of time? SMH.
The approach to Maryam Kokor was very different, as was our lovely and QUIET scout whom our driver had been kind enough to arrange for us to have after the nightmare we’d experienced at Abuna Yemal. There were sections of tunnel-like through paths of rocks with giant sandstone walls rising up either side of us. Then there were sections where we had to clamber on hands and feet on well-trodden and eroded “steps” up the pink cliffs.
Views were out of this world and I include some pictures here.
There were two small churches to visit at the top of the mountain, and the first had separate entrances for men and women. It looked rather like Medhane Alem inside, though the artwork was far better preserved. The second much smaller church had just one room with a mural going in a circle across all four walls – but we had to navigate a narrow ledge where the wind threatened to pick us up and throw us up and over the edge where we’d fall several thousand feet to the valley below. I include some pictures and videos of this exhilarating hike here.
I felt extremely satisfied and physically spent by the time we made it back to the van. Here is a link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4EGFHA4FemY Not just that – I was rather hungry, but we opted to grab avocado smoothies and make our way to Mekele since it was already 4:30pm in the afternoon – and we would be leaving for our 4 day/3-night trip to the Danakil Depression the very next day – and probably at early o’clock.
We visited our tour agency on arrival in Mekele to pay for our trip – but alas, the credit card machine wasn’t working (shocking, I know.) So Sneetchi dropped us at a nice hotel (which was a little expensive, but well worth the little bit of luxury we felt we deserved) where we got a SEMI-SUITE, which was essentially a room with an adjoining living area. More importantly, the restaurant served burgers and fries which we joyfully washed down with large beers and toasted our incredible two day adventure visiting historical churches…I mean, trekking through some of the best scenery I’ve experienced yet on the Dark Continent.