Tigray is incredibly rich in history. The state can trace its roots back to one of the first civilizations in the region, with Emperors once ruling as early as the 5th century. For centuries, the region played a major role in Christianity. Tigray was once the epicenter of the great ancient Axumite kingdom and the historic settlements of Axum, the kingdom’s capital. Yeha, a crumbling town of great importance, and Adwa, the location of the battle in late 19th century in which the Italian army was conquered.
This rapidly industrializing region hosts many historical sites which date back to the 2nd century. Some of the great attractions of Tigray are its hundreds of ancient rock hewn churches, a number of which have been built into dauntingly high caves in the cliffs. These caves are similar in design to Ethiopia’s stunning site Lalibela. Reaching these monuments is an unforgettable adventure.
The rolling landscape of the Tigray region seem to leap from some long lost African legend. The glowing light of the sun cleanses scattered jaggedy peaks that rise into the sky out of the sandy arid landscape. These high rising plateaus lead to unavoidable comparisons with the deserts of Arizona.
Very different from the more famous rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, the Tigrayan churches are carved from cliff faces, built into pre-existing caves or constructed high atop some implausible perch – scrambling up may not be for the timid traveler, but the rewards are certainly worthwhile.
There are over 100 marked-out churches within the Tigray region, categorized into five main groups. The most famous of which are the Gheralta Church cluster close the small town of Hawzen in the eastern region of Tigray. If you only have a day or two to explore the Tigray Churches, then sticking to this section is a must!
If we hadn’t mention it already, the Gheralta cluster, in the most striking of landscapes, is going to be the highlight of your tour. Although the churches do not match what is offered in Lalibela in terms of magnitude, it is the scenery and sheer expedition of it all that makes this trip worthwhile. Visiting some of these churches involve spine-tingling climbs over abrupt drops; a little scary sometimes! Within the Gheralta cluster there are over thirty rock-hewn churches and we have highlighted our favorites.
Abuna Yemata Guh
One of the most famous of the Tigray churches, Abuna Yemata offers extraordinary views for those who make the climb. Accessing the church involves a 20 minute walk up relatively steep terrain followed by short rope climb up the cliff face (all safe and supported by the locals). Continue to meander up the cliff, passing old skulls in the hollowed walls, before walking along a narrow pass and into the church. At first, you'll be captivated by the view, and as you enter the church, the walls of the monastery, alive with ancient paintings, begin to captivate the imagination.
Easily the best all-around hike in the cluster, the cross-shaped Church, although an unsightly green from the outside, is known for its architectural features, fine 17th century frescos and delicate treasures. It’s also one of the largest churches in the area. The path to begins around 1 km from the road just southeast of Megab and involves a fairly steep one-hour ascent. Maryam Korkor is easily combined with nearby Abuna Yemata Guh into all-day trek from Megab.
“Ashenda” in Tigray is a holiday like no other. This remarkable festival marks the end of a two-week-long fast known as Filseta and is a time for young, single women to dress up in cultural clothes and roam the streets, singing and playing drums. It is customary for onlookers to reward them a few birr their efforts.
A week or so after the celebrations start, the event comes to an end with all the girls from the village coming together in a common central location for more singing and dancing until sundown. This time the young boys join in more like a spectator than active players.
The unique and stunning landscape of Tigray makes community trekking here one of the best experiences available in the country. The treks traverse the giant plateaus that jut out of the Tigrayan landscape, taking you down into the valleys before ascending sharply over the top of the ridges.
Places to Stay
Gheralta lodge is a tranquil, Italian owned lodge that was one of the first premium lodges to be built in the area. The lodge is situated in a four hectare site with a breathtaking views of the Gheralta mountains. Grass roofed, stone bungalows built in a local style provides accommodation for up to 30 guests. A shaded terrace looks out over the sandy arid landscape. The large dining room is the setting for home cooked Italian meals and wine, while the bar is a welcoming spot for cocktails. It is the perfect base for tours to the rock hewn churches of the Tigray region.
Wukro Eco Lodge
Wukro Eco Lodge is newly opened eco lodge located 45 kms from Mekelle. The lodge is well placed for trips to the Gheralta cluster rock hewn churches of Tigray. The lodge itself is balanced atop a hill above Wukro town. Rooms boast comfortable beds, a large bathroom and private terrace (with great views of the hills). There’s also a large pool, spa facilities and a small shop that produces traditional crafts. It is a delightful lodge and perfectly suited for travelers looking for a good value base for Tigray.
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