Gheralta Guide: The Rock-Hewn Churches of Ethiopia

Gheralta Guide The Rock-Hewn Churches of Ethiopia

Nothing has brought me as much joy in this region of Tigray—besides my family and friends of course—as the rock-hewn churches of the Gheralta Valley. You don’t have to be a person of the Orthodox faith to enjoy this deeply spiritual pilgrimage past pastoral farms, up through canyon walls and into the mountains in search of these ancient treasures. The physical act of hiking to these hidden churches mirrors for me the life-long journey of the pilgrimage toward God. It is a unique opportunity to see yourself, away from the busyness of routine and habit, as you climb up into the ancient mysteries that these mountains hold. I cannot properly put into words all that I have experienced there but I will attempt to whet your appetite for adventure.

As a disclaimer, I am not well versed in ancient structures and I can’t tell you the significance of all the paintings and carvings on this blog. This is meant to be an overview of what is available in the Gheralta Valley, based on my personal experience. This is a good place to start if you are new to Gheralta and its churches. Please note that some of these hikes are dangerous and although you will not have to sign any safety waver or be harnessed in, extreme caution and common sense should be employed.

What is There to See?

I have heard and read conflicting accounts of how many rock-hewn churches there are in the northern region of Ethiopia called Tigray; Lonely Planet reports 120 while local sources site over 200. The Gheralta Region is located in Tigray in between Mekelle and Axum and it encompasses the towns of Wukro, Hawzien, Megab and Degum as well as the surrounding mountains. Within the Gheralta region there are over thirty of these rock-hewn churches, and I have highlighted my favorites.

A Quick Ethiopian Church History:

Judaism was introduced when the Queen of Sheba, also called Makeda, traveled to visit King Solomon in Jerusalem during the 10th century BC. She had heard of his great wisdom and wanted to meet him for herself. It is said that the Queen of Sheba had a son to King Solomon and they named him Menelik. When Menelik was grown, he went to Jerusalem to learn all that he could from this father. When he returned to Ethiopia he brought Judaism and its practices back with him.

Christianity became the official religion of the Kingdom of Aksum (Ancient Ethiopia) in the 4th century AD when Saint Frumentius converted King Ezana. Frumentius was born in Tyre and travelled with some companions to Aksum by ship when he was very young. Somehow he ended up working in the royal court as a slave—many believe his ship was wrecked. Even as a boy he was very wise, and won favor with the royal family. Frumentius converted King Ezana to Christianity, and when Frumentius was older he was given permission to leave, in order to ask the church in Alexander to appoint a bishop for the Kingdom of Aksum. He returned to Ethiopia as the first bishop of the Aksumite Empire.

Although the 4th century is when Christianity officially took root, there is plenty of reason to believe that Christianity made its way to Ethiopia before King Ezana. The Eunuch from Acts 8 of the New Testament Bible was an Ethiopian court official that met Philip the Evangelist on the road in 1st century AD. He was converted to Christianity by Philip and it is believed that he brought Christianity back to Ethiopia. In addition, Matthew, one of the twelve disciples, was charged with preaching the Christian gospel to modern-day Ethiopia.

The Nine Saints were also pivotal to the growth of Christianity in Ethiopia during the 5th century AD. They are either referred to as the Nine Syrian Saints or the Nine Coptic Saints. They are credited with founding different churches in what is now the northern part of Ethiopia called Tigray.

Church Design:

Most of the churches in Gheralta are rock-hewn cave churches carved right into the side of the cliff in a basilica style—rectangular with one aisle, columns, and a domed ceiling. Typically, there is a narthex at the entrance to the west, and the Holy of Holies at the end to the east. There are two doors—one for men and one for women. Due to natural limitations some of the shapes are irregular—these churches were literally dug out of the rock.

How do I get There?

Fly from Addis Ababa (ADD) into Mekelle (MQX) on Ethiopian Airlines. If you have a resident ID or your inbound flight was on Ethiopian Airlines you are eligible for a discounted flight (usually costing around $150 USD). The drive from Mekelle to the Gheralta Valley is about two hours by car. There are also some notable rock-hewn churches on your way to Gheralta near Wukro that you won’t want to miss; the most notable being Abraha We Atsbeha. If you drive the back way to Gheralta (which is a dirt road) you will also pass by a number of these churches.

It is possible to arrange your whole travel and tour through a tour service. I haven’t had direct experience with any of these outfitters so I cant recommend them but here are some resources to get you started:

Where Should I Stay?

Gheralta Lodge

This is where I usually stay. This is also where Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and George W. Bush have stayed. The price varies depending on the season but including breakfast there are single rooms for as little as $25-40 USD a night and double rooms for $75-100 USD. The rooms are built out of the local rock using traditional designs. The lodge is owned by an Italian couple, and Italian food is on the menu for lunch and dinner.

I haven’t actually stayed here, but I have walked the property. The main lodge is recently completed and there are still some signs of construction. But the rooms and gardens look very nice. It cost around $100 USD per adult including all these meals (not sure if alcohol is included).

We have also CAMPED under a huge sycamore fig tree.

Do I Need a Guide and How do I get One?

With all of these churches you will need a guide. Firstly, because the trails are not always clear, but more importantly they have the phone number to call the priest to let you into the church. If you have booked your travel through a tour company they will surely provide a guide, but if you have booked your own travel you can easily obtain a guide once you are there by driving to the town of Megab and asking for the tourist office. They will furnish you with a guide. Your lodge can also arrange for a guide to come and meet you and travel from there.

How Much Will it Cost To Hike to One Church?

When you meet your guide, be sure to have them outline all the costs for you so you aren’t surprised. Sometimes they just mention their fee and forget to include the entrance fees and expected tips.

Costs as of March 2018 per church:

  • Guide Fee: 460 birr, no receipt. If they do a good job I usually give a 100 birr tip.
  • Entrance fee for church: 150 birr per person, receipt required.
  • Don’t let your experience be tainted by the fact that all the priests at the rock-hewn churches expect a tip. Most of the time you will also need to bring along a local boy/man (they call them scouts) that can help with some of the difficult sections. I usually tip the priest 100-150 birr as well as each of the scouts 100-150 birr. Sometimes they complain that they should be paid more which makes me sad. I think it is because some tourists come and give them 500 birr and it throws off the local economy.

How do I Reach the Churches?

You will need a car to reach the ‘trail head’ of each of these churches, but your guide will be able to give you directions for how to reach it. Mind you, I use the term ‘trail head’ very loosely.

What if I Can’t Hike? Are There any Churches for Me?

  • Maryam Papasetti—1 to 1.5 hour stroll through Ethiopian farms lands.
  • Abraha We Atsbeha—2 min walk up a few flights of stairs. Off a main road.
  • Selassie Degum- 2 min walk from the road.

Other Resources on the Rock Churches of Tigray: