The Gheralta Mountains of Tigray
The air is thick and arid, making it hard to breath.
The sound of marmots and coyotes howling in the distant desert is carried by the piercing westerly winds as fine grains of sand are whipped up, into the sky.
Despite the barren Mad Max-esque landscape spreading beyond the horizon, the red rock mountains that encapsulate the desert conceal within them one of Ethiopia's hidden gems.
Within these mountains, lies a cavernous complex of churches and temples, cut from stone, countless centuries ago.
Gheralta Mountain's Churches
From the ground, the towering mountains cast huge shadows across the sand, a brief respite from the heat.
Of the countless churches in the area, 35 are accessible via different routes, all well-worn by an epoch's worth of pilgrims, priest, travellers and tourists, each ascending the steep stone walls for the same solitary reason, to witness, first hand, the secrets held within.
Although Lalibela may be better known for rock churches, the Tigray region, in particular the Gheralta region, is home to some of the oldest churches in the country.
Thanks to their difficult-to-reach locations, the churches in Gheralta are some of the best preserved ancient monasteries in the world.
A brief history
Only two hours away from the Tigrayan capital of Mekele, you quickly develop a sense of the scale as you drive out of the city and into the expansive Gheralta landscape. There's only one thing from here on: untouched, unending wilderness.
Construction began on the churches in the fifth century, by one man, a nomadic priest by the name of Father Yemata.
Seeking isolation from the world, Yemata scaled the lofty heights and began carving these solitary spiritual spaces over the reminder of his life.
As word spread of his plight, more and more fellow aesthetics joined.
Scaling the cliffs
Following the handholds and footprints worn in by decades of erosion, and with the help of a local guide, scaling the sandstone cliffs is a relatively easy task, albeit quite vertigo inducing!
After one last scramble up loose stones and crumbling boulders, the summit is within touching distance and with it, centuries' long history distilled into a small, dark, cave.
Skulls line the entrance to each of the churches, belonging to those who perished within these walls, long, long ago.
Abuna Yemata Guh
One of the better known churches in the area is Abuna Yemata Guh. The church lies beyond a narrow slowly crumbling sandstone walkway.
What started as a small collection of hermitage caves hidden behind a knackered wooden door, the area was slowly expanded over time to what is now a sprawling series of caves, all illuminated by dim flickering candles.
The hums and murmurs of the shawled believers greets those brave enough to enter, and this can be heard echoing round the vast caverns.
Abuna Yemata is one of the best examples of churches in region, it’s paint splattered walls depicting the trials and tribulations of those who constructed the site.
The views from Abuna Yemata Guh are extraordinary, and the experience of rock-climbing to ancient monasteries in rural Tigray is unforgettable.
Across the valley sits Maryam Korkor, another of the sandstone fortresses of spiritual solitude.
Much like its nearest neighbour, the church sits high atop a cliff, looking past the canyon and across the stunning Gheralta landscape.
As worshippers pass by, all covered in the same traditional garments, the enormity and importance of the sites can truly be felt. Services are still held with the churches, a testament to the local commitment to faith.
Far removed from the noise of modern life, these shrines silently sit, as they have done for centuries, waiting to be discovered.
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