Tsada Imba – Teka Tesfai Cluster
Along the Mekelle – Adigrat road, 25km after Wukro, an escarpment better known as Tsada Imba, meaning White Mountain, accompanies the road along the route to Sinkata. The rocky but scenic area is the home of one of the highly sacred places in the region.
There are about two caves and three magnificent rock hewn churches in Tsada Imba. For centuries, they remained almost totally cut off from anything except the ecclesiastical world. Despite their nearness to the Mekelle – Adigrat highway, they have remained to this day in obscurity. Now, they are emerging from their white shell to show their beauty and charm to the world.
PETROS AND PAULOS
It is a cave church situated east of a small village of Inda Teka Tesfay, 73km along the Mekelle – Adigrat road. A ten minutes drive across the plain fields will bring you to this antiquity. The church lies on the cliff side of the escarpment, 2740m above sea level. It is visible from the main road because of its white washed facade. The ascent of the cliff face is considered difficult and even terrifying. There are only finger holds and foot grips for use in the ascent. People who suffer from vertigo are advised not to try.
After a visit to the church in January 1994, Caroline Swinburn of the BBC reported in one of their radio programs, ” This is not the relaxing country hike I have been led to expect. But rather the kind of expedition for which most westerners would normally take ropes and crampons and may be even a full scale mountain rescue team. The church is partly built (of wood, stone and mortar) and partly the cave. The Holy of Holies lies in the natural cave to the east of the small sanctuary. The sanctuary is square in shape, about 2m wide and 2m deep. There are two wooden pillars supporting the ceiling.
Its murals are of great quality and pleasing artistry. On the walls and on the chamber antecedent to the Holy of Holies are a number of striking paintings depicting the Madonna and Child, Angels, the Nine saints, Christ resurrecting, Adam and Eve and many other subjects. The names of the Saints and Angels are shown on the murals. Saint Peter, Saint George, Abune Kiros, Abune Samuel and others are shown in their finest robes and turbans.
Paul Henze described the paintings as ” . . . among the most interesting early paintings I saw anywhere in Ethiopia”. He went on to write that they ”…have an originality and liveliness often missing in Ethiopian paintings of this early period.” Unfortunately, the wooden ceiling, mortar and wood walls of the church that hold these magnificent murals and paintings are falling apart. The openings created as a result of the falling mortar have allowed dust and rain water to wash away some of the paint.
The church is no longer in use, apparently because of the difficulty in climbing the cliff. However, Halefom Retta, a peasant farmer in a neighboring village, has single handedly hewn a replacement monolithic rock church right at the foot of the escarpment. The Petros and Paulos church is 10m wide, 9m deep and about 3m from the floor to the ceiling. It has four freestanding pillars. The front part of the church is a constructed structure. The church is built in such a way that it could house three replicas of the Ark of the Covenant. Construction of the new Petros and Paulos began in 1982 and was completed twelve years later.