Introduction to Tigray
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 epicentre of the great ancient Axumite kingdom and the historic settlements of Axum, the kingdom’s capital. It is also the place of Yeha, a crumbling town of great importance, and Adwa, the location of the battle in the 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. Reaching these monuments is an unforgettable adventure.
Guide to Tigray
The rolling landscape of the Tigray region seems to leap from some long-lost African legend. The glowing light of the sun cleanses scattered jagged peaks that rise into the sky out of the sandy arid floor. These high rising plateaus evoke comparisons with the deserts of Arizona.
Very different from the 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 traveller, 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 to the small town of Hawzen in the eastern region of Tigray.
The Gheralta cluster of churches are the most impressive. The scenery and sheer expedition of it all that makes this trip worthwhile. Visiting some of these churches involve climbing rock faces and navigating rocky passes up the plateaus.
Abuna Yemata Guh
One of the most famous of the Tigray churches, Abuna Yemata Guh offers extraordinary views for those who make the climb.
Accessing the church involves a 20-minute walk up relatively steep terrain followed by a 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 begins around 1 km from the road just south-east of Megab and involves a fairly steep one-hour ascent.
Maryam Korkor is easily combined with nearby Abuna Yemata Guh to make an 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 women to dress up in cultural clothes head out to the streets, singing and playing drums.
It is customary for onlookers to reward them a few birr for 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 for more singing and dancing until sundown.
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.
The guesthouses are locally run and perched on the plateau edge. During the day, the views extend for miles, and at night the sky comes alive with starlight.
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 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.
Wukro Eco Lodge
Wukro Eco Lodge is a newly opened eco lodge located 45km from Mekele.
The lodge is well-placed for trips to the Gheralta cluster of rock churches in Tigray, and is cheaper than Gheralta or Korkor Lodge.
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 travellers looking for a good value base.
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