“Where do we go from here?” I asked the young man who’d been hiking alongside me for the previous hour, as we reached the end of the path we were on.
He pointed straight up.
“Right,” I acknowledged, “but how do we get there?”
Just then, a much older man descended the wall as fast as a raindrop falling from the sky, a harness in his hand and a length of rope dangling from his pocket. He smiled at me and said something in the Tigrinya language.
“He’s asking if you plan to climb up with or without support.”
I sighed and looked straight up. I didn’t come this far to give up now.
Abuna Yemata Guh
The good news is that I made it up the 30-meter wall of rock without a scratch, minus the 100 birr I had to pay to “rent” the equipment for 10 minutes. The bad news? My climb was only the first of many trials and tribulations I had to endure on my way up to Abuna Yemata Guh, which according to some is the world’s least accessible place of worship.
“Local people,” my guide explained, a few seconds after I successfully walked along a foot-wide cliff hundreds of feet above the ground below, “climb up here in the middle of the night.”
“By moonlight?” I asked, feeling weak and embarrassed and prissy.
He laughed. “Sometimes.”
Maryam Korkor and Daniel Korkor
After our visit to Abuna Yemata Guh we headed to the nearby town of Megab for a local lunch and a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Then, it was back toward the dramatic mountains where I’d nearly died that morning and toward another rock-hewn church, this one called Maryam Korkor.
“But don’t worry,” he assured me, “this is just a hike—no climbing involved.”
As it turned out, there was some of what I would call climbing, albeit not up a sheer cliff face. The views from the courtyard of Maryam Korkor were arguably more impressive than those I’d seen from Abuna Yemata Guh, however, although the church itself didn’t seem nearly as novel, even if its 17th-century frescoes were impressive.
Instead, it was nearby Daniel Korkor that really stuck out to me. It was not as architecturally sophisticated as Maryam Korkor, which is the largest of the Tigray Church, but the story my guide told me about the monk who hid out in there for a weeks (a story I now can’t find online, and whose veracity I question) made me feel like I was someplace truly forlorn.
How to Visit Ethiopia’s Tigray Churches
Visiting these three Tigray Churches—Abuna Yemata Guh, Maryam Korkor and Daniel Korkor—took the entire of a day that begun in the Ethiopian city of Axum and ended in Mekele (where I set off for my trip into the Danakil Depression). I purchased my tour, which included private transportation for the day as well as a guide, through the same company who took me to Danakil. (I’m not going to recommend them here, though, because they were sort of expensive and sort of not good.)
You will need to be in either Axum or Mekele to make visiting any of the Tigray Churches (and there are many more than the ones I visited) practical. Shop around with tour companies in these cities until you find the price and the itinerary that best suits your needs.
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