GHERALTA – THE HOME OF ROCK - HEWN CHURCHES
The drive through the Gheralta cluster is fantastic, particularly between the villages of Dugem and Megab, with stratified mountains and sharp peaks rising like Aksumite stelae from the plains. This range, which rises abruptly almost perpendicularly above the Hawzien plain offers some of the most spectacular views in Tigrai. George Grester, the Swiss photographer, in the book “churches in rock’ writes, “ Gheralta with its ‘western film’ scenery of mountains seems to be a kind of Ethiopia Arizona”. Trevor Cole, one of the European tourists to visit the site, in his part gives account of his visit:
“I have been to the area three times and as a reflection of the beauty of the area, the unique churches and the inimitable service in the lodge I would have no hesitation in going back time and again.”
How nature is generous, wonderful, merciful, mysterious and beautiful is witnessed at the scenic beauty of the Gheralta Mountains.
HAWZIEN AND ITS OUTSKIRTS
The historical town of Hawzien is located north – west of Wukro. The town is base to visit the famous rock – hewn churches of Gheralta. Although every rock church in Gheralta deserves a visit, only some of them are presented in birds – eye - view, taking Hawzien as springboard.
Hawzien – Saint Tekle-Haimanot Church
The church is a union of a rock-hewn and stone built. The chiseled structure, however small in size, is fascinating enough to take attention. The chamber holds six free standing and six more pillars merged with the rock. The independent columns marked by capital like bosses, are wonderfully executed in a style. The walls manifest a set of rectangle from shallow cuts topped by a sequence of designs fashioned to look like cement made tubes. The chamber left for the tablet has finely carved windows and special ceiling inscribed by a dome and cross- like decoration.
It is totally carved out and, has spacious interior which displays various expressive designs. It has four free and six more pillars merged with the walls. All columns are in arches. The central ceiling facing the Holly of Hollies, trimmed to look like a barrel, better adorns the attraction.
The chapel has two attractive windows which farther ornament the structure. One reveals a cross-featured design while the other one, circular in shape, is decorated with pattern rolled like plastic tubes. The Holy of Hollies, well ordered, has its walls carry a series of rectangle and cross-shaped depth-less cuts. More important is the rock cut menberetabot which is used to keep the tabot. Such features are uncommon. It can be reached about 4km after Hawzen and off the Hawzien – Nebelet road.
AbuneYemata (Guh) – Where Tourists Sense Wonder!
5 km west of Megab, there is a church, which does deserve special mention – AbuneYemata. This church requires almost vertical ascent. It does not take long to get there from the base and the visitor walks past ancient olive trees, small farmsteads and is then faced with a choice. To climb or not to climb up! Parts of the ascent are vertical for about 5 meters and there is no room for error. There are no ladders, no ropes and no hope if you fall. And yet there is a motivating force, which drives you on wards and upwards. When you are close to the entrance and you have succeeded in dealing with vertically you are faced with taking off your shoes and climbing over a bridge of rock with foot holds and hand grips in the rock face.
On top of that, to get to the church entrance, there is a narrow ledge with an abyss below, which almost teases and entices you to look over and follow some primeval instinct to jump. Ivy Pearce, one of the first few westerners to visit the site, gives account of her visit.
I climbed up some pretty stiff stuff and then came face to face with a cliff face with only footholds and hand-grips at irregular intervals. This climb I could not manage, as my arms were not long enough to reach the next hand-grip to let my foot go to find the next foot-grip. Furthermore, the hand-grips were too wide to grasp firmly with my small hands. I didn’t want to take risk, so gave it up and sat on a small ledge below.
Not many visitors are comfortable to even attempt the scary ascent, although it is extremely rewarding to enjoy the view from above of the sharp drop of the cliff. Ruth plant described the church as “…the most unusual church in the most unusual place, that place being majestic and awesome”. The interior of the church, reached via a small crack in the rock is notable for its extensive and perfectly preserved wall and ceiling frescoes, thought to date from the 15th century and regarded by Plant as “the most sophisticated frescoes found in Tigrai”. It is surprising that such great works of art existed for centuries in such unusual place which seems rather closer to the moon than to the earth, or so it seems, a refuge from the rigorous of life on the plains below.
AbuneGebre Mikael, Koraro
The Megab – Koraro road skirts the western foot side of Gheralta accompanied by various landscapes. The escarpment that overlays the settlement in the east is marked by pyramid–shaped stony hills of which one safeguards AbuneGebre Mikael, one of the best-preserved churches of the mountains. Considered one of the best and finest churches in Gherealta, this church’s cruciform plan is hewn beautifully into a dome-like rock. It features vibrant frescoes and carefully carved columns, pillars, cupolas and arches. The church can be reached after driving 23 km of local road from Megab or 18km from the departure of AbuneYemata (Guh) and after a sometimes demanding climb up a chimney in the mountain.
Debre MaryamKorkor and Abba Daniel Korkor
A favorite with photographers and documentary filmmakers, the twin churches of Maryam and Daniel Korkor will take your breath away!
Debre Maryam Korkor is a rock hewn-church on one of the high mountains of Gheralta just overlooking the village of Megab. The scenic climb up the mountain is not short but manageable (about 1 hour of reasonably steep mountain hiking) and offers stunning panoramic views of the Hawzien plain and the surrounding mountains. At the plateau on top of the Mountain, one of the biggest and most complex rock-hewn churches of Tigrai awaits the visitor.
Maryam Korkor has three aisles and was hewn five bays deep into the mountain to the sanctuary entrance. Architecturally, it is one of the more complex structures, with many columns of interesting shapes and three cupolas spanning the five bays with Aksumite detailing. The layout follows a cruciform plan and there are numerous paintings on the walls and columns, some faded, and in different styles. The priest with a chalice on one of the pillars is thought by one commentator to be Melchizedek, the martyr priest. On the blind arch there are scenes from early paradise with Eve and the serpent, and frescoes of many animals, including birds, gazelles and even a pig, can be found all over the walls of the church.
A short but breathtaking walk on to a rock ledge facing east – just wide enough to prevent vertigo, but still extraordinary enough to make one speechless, the entrance to Abba Daniel Korkor is hidden. A very small door in the cliff face leads to this small church with only two rooms. The ceiling of the domed anteroom is decorated with well-preserved paintings. In this remote place, 500m above the plain, with its stunning views of the mountains of Gheralta as well as the Hawzien plain, it is easy to understand why Abba Tesfay, the local monk guarding the twin churches, believes he is closer to heaven here than he could be anywhere else on the planet.
Degum Selassie Church
The site of Degum is an important chapter of Ethiopia architecture. It is the only site displaying in a single area three sanctuaries, a baptistery and a crypt-tomb, all of them copying accurately in the rock the ancient Aksumite architecture. The tomb is a rock-hewn duplicate of the tombs built in the underground of Aksum. The design of the baptistery follows the pattern of the Mediterranean baptisteries built from the 4th C on-wards. In the neighboring Nubian such baptisteries have been built up to the 10th century. Many remains of Aksumite ceramics have been collected on the site (and deposited at Addis Ababa museum in 1971). It is not possible to date a precise duration for the site, but it could be tentatively dated from the 7th till the 10th C. It is on the southern edge of the village off the road.
Mariam Papaseiti Church
It is completely hidden by heavy tropical vegetation including date palms- a very pleasant situation. The exterior is by no means an impressive structure. The church sanctuary is rock-hewn. The narthex is built against the rock where the paintings, which have been executed on cloth, are located. The most remarkable attraction of this church is its graphic murals which tell both old and New Testament stories most vividly. They can be dated because of the donors – BashayDengeze and his wife EmebietHirut, who are depicted below the two paintings of the virgin. BashayDengeze was the governor of the district during the time of RasWoldaSellassie (1788 – 1866), who encouraged commerce and was to receive the first British mission to Ethiopia in 1804. It can be accessible after 20 minutes’ drive with local road and 20 minutes gentle walk west of Degum.
Abune Abraham DebreTsion
A few km after Degum, the gravel road turns west to come to a table mountain whose top houses the church of DebreTsion. It is architecturally most outstanding and entirely hewn from living rock. Inside this church the back walls of the holy of hollies, the domes, pillars and wall panels are all abundantly decorated with fine paintings of Saints and Apostles. Especially the dome is beautifully adorned with patterns. A hidden, half-moon shaped walkway is carved around the church into the rock, leading to a dome-like chamber decorated with many geometrical designs and carvings in bas relief depicting Angels and Saints. Furthermore, this monument of great workmanship also possesses a well-preserved, beautiful 15th century circular ceremonial fan painted on vellum. The church is situated close to Degum, and accessed via a reasonably steep footpath up the mountain, roughly 45 minutes hike in average.
This church is rectangular in shape and has six free-standing pillars which curve to meet each other and thereby support a ceiling carved with geometrical designs. The church contains many early paintings which are thought to be at least 300 years old, and are very different in style to any other church paintings found in Gheralta. The walls of the building are dressed with murals of saints and apostles; it is the intense atmosphere that most visitors remember. The relic is reached from the village of Metari, about 1km south of Degum. It is continued by a steep footpath, roughly 40 minutes hike on average.