‘Be careful! Put your foot in these holes only’ said my 80 years old Tigray guide. We were perched 1312 feet above the valley floor, clinging on a sheer cliff face, trying to climb up to one of the famous Tigray rock-cut churches in Ethiopia. There were no guard rails, no safety harness, or even ropes and the slightest slip would mean a sheer fall to death. As my heart pounded like a jackhammer, I wondered for the millionth time in one hour, what made me even think of doing it. Closeby, a pregnant Tigray woman billy goated up nimbly and said something cheerfully in her language. My tongue, however, remained stuck to the roof of my mouth in fear and I stared at the curious marmots peeping from amidst the rocks to block my mind. Looking down was out of the question. It only turned my knees into jelly and made me freeze into inaction. Being stuck in such a precarious place was something neither me nor my fellow travel group members wanted, so I simply kept going up. At one point, I remember crying like a baby and when I finally managed to scramble inside Abuna Yemata, I lay still on the stone floor for some time, too dazed and weak to react. Thankfully, this reaction was shared by all my fellow travelers and there were six of us from different countries, backgrounds, and ages. Irrespective of such differences, we had one thing in common and that was the feeling of having climbed up to Abuna Yemata without any safety harness.

The beautiful Tigray region of Ethiopia

Leaving Aksum for Tigray rock-cut churches

There was a long period of silence after we returned to our minivan; each of us lost in our thoughts about our most recent experience. Life and death situations, they say, make people reconsider their existence over and secretly, I was just thankful to have come out alive from this perilous, reckless expedition. I was also quite proud of myself because climbing up Tigray’s rock-cut churches, especially Abuna Yemata is no easy feat. It is one of those things that you do once in your lifetime and brags about and I was glad that I ticked off that wish from my travel bucket list. When I purchased the tour of Tigray’s rock-cut churches in Aksum, I was confident that the local guides provided safety ropes for climbing Abuna Yemata. Incidentally, the rest of my travel group members shared the same view and imagine our shock, when at the foot of the mountain, we came to know that the safety ropes have recently been discontinued by the government. There we were, a bunch of confused travelers, staring up at the pinnacle like mountain that held the world’s most inaccessible church at its summit. A part of us wanted to go for the adventure despite the changes, while the practical sides of us told us to drop the dangerous plan. However, we were not the only ones to climb up Abuna Yemata without ropes, and neither we will be the first nor the last ones. The locals Tigrains scramble up to pay their homage nearly every week and many travelers have achieved this feat before. Perhaps it was that thought and the sight of a pregnant woman climbing up without any fear that made us begin our ascent and it is something I will never do again.

Tigray looks both timeless and atmospheric

Abuna Yemata, the world’s most inaccessible church

Abuna Yemata Guh is one of Tigray’s rock-cut churches that shot into fame due to the inaccessibility. The entire region has more than 100 rock-hewn churches clustered in different sections, but it is the only one that requires the precarious climb. Ethiopia’s Christianity predates the formation of the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, to which Abuna Yemata belongs, is one of the religion’s oldest sects. According to the local legends, the church was hewn in the 6th century. Sometime in the 5th century AD, Father Yemata walked to Ethiopia, climbed the mountains, and quarried the church out of the rock. Why he wished to perch his house of worship still remains a mystery. While many believe that it was to avoid persecution, others are in favour that we desired quiet and peace of the high altitude space. Needless to say, the church is dedicated to Abuna Yemata, one of the Nine Saints who came from Syria to the ancient kingdom of Aksum, and the construction is in a typical Ethiopian Orthodox style. It is divided into three areas – one part for music, a hall for Holy Communion, and a sacred room holding the replica of the Ark of Covenant. Inside the cavernous interiors, frescoes of angels and apostles decorate the roof and walls and the stone floor bears the telltale signs of candle wax from pilgrims’ gifts. Despite, its location at 2,580 meters (8,460 ft), Abuna Yemata is an extremely busy church. Believers climb up the cliffs several times a week making the golf ball-sized toeholds on the cliff face to be smooth as marble. Families bring their newborn babies up to be baptized, and corpses are regularly borne up to be buried on the mountain. Mothers climb up carrying their children on their back, pregnant women, babies, and old people attend services there, and reportedly, for 15 centuries no one has ever fallen on the way up. That is why the locals call it “The climb of faith.”
abuna yemata in tigray rock-cut churches

View from Abuna Yemata, the most inaccessible Tigray rock-cut churches

The “climb of faith” – to do or not to do

The present priest of Abuna Yemata claims that the route is blessed. “Not one has ever died. Our patron saint saves those who fall with his wind. They are returned to the ledge from halfway down”, said Father Assefa. His deeply lined face with their warm almond eyes glowed as he held up the goatskin holy book of Teamre Mariam (Miracle of St.Mary). He recounted some stories from the ‘miracle book’, explaining the natural ink illustrations for our benefit. We could see from the enthusiasm with which he explained and the fact that he made this climb every day, that he deeply believed in his preachings and that is a power to reckon with. His grandfather had also been a priest and Tigray’s rock-cut churches priests have been buried among those rocks for generations. In fact, many locals also wish to be buried there and it is a common sight to see men bearing a corpse climbing up the mountains for burial. “Upon this rock,” said Father Assefa, “we are closer to God” and ironically three steps out of the Abuna Yemata would mean certain death. Abuna Yemata is the world’s most inaccessible church and it is the most awe-inspiring of all Tigray rock-cut churches.
Hiking up to one of Tigray rock-cut churches, Maryam Korkor

Hiking up to Maryam Korkor

Finding peace or death by free fall

The climb down was as terrifying as the ascent, but, somehow our heart seemed more still and at peace. The ‘sky church’ of Abuna Yemata certainly had an aura that naturally soothed the mind and the power of collective faith was like a healing balm to terrified nerves. One starts believing in the ‘climb of faith’ and for many, it is as close to divinity as they can get. During the descent, I watched in awe as the semi-arid landscape of Tigray unfurled beneath my feet. It is a breathtakingly beautiful region; almost pastoral and Biblical in its pristine beauty. Shifting clouds cast shadows across the vast land as shepherd guided their flocks past stone houses. It was a scene straight out of thousands of years back: it was like a scene from the Old Testament. Simple, pristine, and beautiful.

The vast plains of Tigray

Tigray rock-cut churches travel guide

The stunning Tigray rock-hewn churches may be one of the best-kept secrets of Ethiopia. Not many travelers make it there, but those who do are simply mesmerized away by the evocative ancient churches, sweeping views, fantastic hiking, great birdwatching, and wonderful people. Unlike the more famous Lalibela churches, Tigray’s rock-cut churches are carved out of caves and are often located atop dizzying heights. It takes a lot of time, planning, and guts to get to them, but the experience and views are extraordinary. However, this is not a place for those with vertigo.

Where are the Tigray rock-cut churches?

Tigray rock-cut churches are located in Ethiopia’s mountainous north-eastern region. These are set between the cities of Aksum and Mekelle and are not easy to reach except by private car or organized tour. The best base is the town of Hawzen.

Tigray rock-cut church groups

There are more than 100 churches in the Tigray region and these are clustered into 5 main groups. The Gheralta group of churches is most visited and these are located nearest to Hawzen. The Gheralta group of churches are also the quickest and easiest to access. The three most impressive ones, namely Abuna Yemata, Maryam Korkor, and Daniel Korkor are located here.

A visitor at Wukro Churkos, one of Tigray rock-cut churches

A visitor at Wukro Churkos, one of Tigray rock-cut churches

Tigray rock-cut churches itinerary

This itinerary includes both easy to access and nearly inaccessible churches. Either do both if you have time and a sense of adventure or choose your section.

Day 1

  • Abraha We Atsbeha – Start early from Mekelle and head towards Wukro. Stop at Abraha We Atsbeha, the church of the twin kings. It is accessible by a short flight of steps, has beautiful murals, and sweeping views of the Gheralta region. The entrance fee is 250 Birr. Tips are expected by the priest and the guides who happen to latch on. The recommended place for an overnight stay is Korkor Lodge.

Day 2

  • Abuna Yemata (Abuna Yemata Guh) – The monolithic church set atop a sheer rock pinnacle is a short drive away from Korkor Lodge. Start early to avoid the blazing noon sun. The first part of the climb is like a steep hike. Take it easy since Tigray is at an altitude of 2000m and above and you may get breathless. The second part requires clambering up the cliff face. Safety ropes that were previously used by the local guides were prohibited at the time of my visit in 2019. The steep rock wall has only handgrips and natural holes for footholds. Being barefoot is mandatory since it is holy ground. After clambering on top of a big boulder in the middle of the two pinnacles, the final stretch includes a dash along a narrow ledge to get to the entrance of the church. This is more scary than dangerous and you don’t want to look down the 250m drop. Return to Korkor Lodge after the hike and take the rest of the day off.

Day 3

  • Maryam Korkor and Daniel Korkor (stop at Maryam Papaseit) – Start early for Maryam Papaseit church. Just an hour hike through the valley, it is an atmospheric semi-monolithic church located under a mountain ledge. The main sanctuary is hewn from the rock and the interiors have some well-preserved murals, which the priest can show by candlelight. Tipping is expected. Leave Maryam Korkor for the afternoon. It is on top of the mountain directly in front of Korkor Lodge. The ascent is a steep and strenuous 1,5-hour hike that sometimes includes clambering over rocks. The views are breathtaking. Maryam Korkor’s frescoes are faded. Its interior, however, has beautiful architectural features. Only the church’s old priest and an old nun live up there and they rarely descend. According to the custom, upon their death, they will be buried in the walls of the church, just like some of their predecessors. Daniel Korkor is located a few minutes away from Maryam Korkor. It overlooks the valley and is accessed via a ledge along a dizzying precipice. Daniel Korkor is very atmospheric since only a tiny door serves as the sole source of light inside the church.

These Tigray rock-cut churches are the main attractions in the area around Korkor Lodge. If you have more time on your hands, you can explore the other groups of churches as well.

Wukro Churkos

The easily accessible Tigray rock-cut churches

This part of the post is inspired by The Hot Flashpacker In her post, she has listed down the easily accessible Tigray rock-cut churches as the ones “for fat and old people” (in her guide’s words). Most of the churches mentioned here are accessible for both men and women, and for people with physical capabilities. These monuments fall en route Aksum to Mekelle.

  • Mikael Alem Adi Kesho – This church is in a cluster of three Ethiopian stone churches near Teka Tesfai and involves a 100-foot climb up a single sandstone monolith rock. Entrance fee – Entry is 150 Birr
  • Mikael Milhaizengi – Also located in the Teka Tesfai cluster of Ethiopian carved churches, this church is reached by a few minute hike up a hill. Best known for the unique circular dome ceiling, the priest may open the door to the holy place and show you the pages of a 1500-year-old bible for a tip. A 4×4 to get to this church, or one needs to hike over a mile from Mikael Alem Adi Kesho. A guide is recommended. Entrance fee – 150 Birr
  • Wukro Churkos – This church is on the northeastern outskirts of Wukro and is the most accessible one. Located on mostly flat ground, this rectangular church resembles a free-standing monument, but in fact, has been carved from solid rock. Entrance fee – 150 Birr
  • Abraha We Atsbeha – This church is a 45-minute drive from the main highway northwest of Wukro, followed by a 5-minute walk up about 100 steps. It has the loveliest murals. Entrance fee – 200 Birr

One of the frescoes

Tigray rock-cut churches visiting tips

  • Remove your shoes before entering all the Tigray rock-cut churches in Ethiopia.
    Don’t expect all the churches to be open. Sometimes the priest may not be in his office and you might not be able to visit or may have to wait for entry.
  • Each church has its entry fee of 150 to 200 Birr. Keep the receipt so they don’t ask for you to pay the entrance fee again.
    Usually, the priest will expect and may even ask you for a tip.
    Almost every Ethiopian antiquated church comes with additional people looking for money – from kids trying to sell you fossils and rocks, boys trying to be your guide, or old men wanting a tip to watch your shoes. Be firm and say “no” if the hassle gets too much.

    The stony mountains of Tigray in northern Ethiopia

The tour to Abuna Yemata, Daniel Korkor, and Maryam Korkor with a stop at Wukro Churkos and 2N/3D in Danakil Depression cost me 700 Euros. It was an all-inclusive small group tour of six people and included accommodations, all meals, transfers, and guiding services. I went with Ethio Travel and Tours. Although there were some slight discrepancies with what we were promised and what we received, I was very much pleased with their services.

Marmot peeping at me on my hike to Maryam Korkor

a priest of tigray rock-cut churches

A priest sitting near Maryam Korkor

Tigray panorama

Follow the rest of the Ethiopia series here