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The rock hewn Churches of Tigray

The unknown wonders of Ethiopia

Though most of the travelers to Ethiopia visit the famous rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, the rock-hewn churches of Tigray offer the most spectacular views and the long Christian tradition. Until the mid 1960’s, the churches were almost unknown outside Tigray itself. The rock- hewn churches of Tigray have been described by the British academic Ivy Pearce as ‘the greatest of the historical-cultural heritages of Ethiopian people’.

The churches in Tigray are generally semi-monolithic (only partially separated from the congregation rock) or built in to the pre-existing caves. There are over 200 rock-hewn churches from Gueralta to Adwa most of them easily accessible although some are situated on the mountain ranges and involve climbing through fairly difficult terrain. But, all this somehow adds to the attraction of the churches and offers an incredible scenery of the surrounding countryside which makes the trip to these churches very enjoyable and rewarding. For those who want to combine trekking with amazing art and history, this may be just the ticket. The tigraian churches may well prove to be Orthodox Ethiopia’s best-kept secret. Bird-watchers will also love the area as it is home to the semi-endemic Rupell’s black chat and white-winged cliff chat.

A bit of history: The churches were built in high, remote places to fend off would-be attackers. In the 10th century, the Jewish queen Judith tried to eradicate Christianity by burning churches and valuable Christian works. An invasion led by Ahmed Gragn (the “left-hand”) in the 16thc also destroyed valuable treasures and sign of the destruction still appear in many of the churches. A local tradition attributes the churches were hewn out either during the joint reigns of Abraha and Atsbeha, the first Christian king of Ethiopia (c. 330-356 AD), or during the time when the nine saints spread monasticism in Ethiopia during the 6th century. Some are very elaborate, cathedral-like, separated from the rock on three sides, while others are more like caves with great stone pillars descending within.
The rock hewn Churches of Tigray

For visiting the rock-hewn churches check out the indent on community based tourism in this site and contact TESFA office.