In Ethiopia, an adrenaline-filled act of faith
Ethiopia’s little-known churches
With their sheer cliffs, surreal rock formations and vertical spires, northern Ethiopia’s Gheralta Mountains recall stretches of the southwestern United States’ red desert landscape. The primary difference: perched high and tucked away into these mountain cliffs are some of the country’s least visited rock-hewn Ethiopian Orthodox cave churches, some of which are more than 1,000 years old.
The Gheralta cluster, located in Tigray Province, includes more than 30 structures. Although local legend claims that these churches date to between the 4th and 6th Centuries, historians believe that they were more likely built from the 9th to 12th Centuries. That, and its location, makes the Gheralta cluster the geographic and artistic midpoint between the early Ethiopian Orthodox centres of Aksum, built from the 4th to 10th Centuries in the north, and Lalibela, from the 12th to 13th Centuries, further south. (Daniel Noll)
Climbing through canyons
High and hidden, the Gheralta churches’ positions served two purposes: to bring devotees closer to heaven and to be out of sight to raiding armies passing through the valleys below. So in order to experience these churches, visitors must hike slot canyons, free climb sheer sandstone walls and skirt cliff edges – a cultural foray that is not for the faint of heart. Authorities recommend that visitors trekking the Gheralta Mountains take a local guide familiar with the area’s terrain, history, culture and language. Pictured here, we followed our guide, a young man named Yemane, up through a slot canyon on our first trek to Maryam Korkor church. The path for the trek begins about 1km southeast of the village of Megab. (Audrey Scott)