ATSBI – WONBERTA
East of Wukro town lies the Atsbi-dera plateau with its striking churches - Mikael Barka, Mikael Imba, and Debre-selam Mikael. These splendidly executed edifices are found perched on mountains with commanding the views of their surroundings.
The rock-hewn church of Mikael Barka can be reached after 18 km drive up the escarpment of the Atsbidera highland plateau east of the town of Wukro. This church is carved from the top of an isolated and roughly round, rock hill. From the top of the hill, one can enjoy a commanding view of the mountain of Tserae and the valley of Womberta to the southeast.
The church has a built facade, which, according to the chief priest, was built in 1967. Two entrances lead from the anteroom to the sanctuary.
It is a three aisles and three bayed square church, 9m wide and 9m deep. It has twelve columns, four of them freestanding and cruciform in design. The bracket capitals are at different heights and the domes and altars are skillfully executed. The ceiling is decorated with a variety of patterns in relief.
Mikael Barka is not known for its wealth of paintings, but one can see murals depicting Saint Mikael. There are also faded murals visible on several columns. Tradition has it that the church was burnt by Queen Judith in the tenth century. According to oral tradition, the edifice is believed to have been sculpted in the 6th century under the auspices of Abune Abraham, an Ethiopian saint. However, David Buxton thinks that the correct date could be the 13th or 14th century.
Mikael Imba Church
Mikael Imba is of similar design as AbrahaAtsbeha and WukroCherkos. With an interior area of 140 square meters, the church is perhaps the most spacious of all the rock churches in Tigrai. The top of the pillars are graced with stepped capitals, the ceiling is meticulously decorated with intricate patterns. Incised in relief, a large Greek cross adorns the ceiling. In terms of decoration and finishing, the church is second to none. According to Dr. TweldeMedhin Yosef, the pioneer in the study of the rock churches of Tigrai, Mikael Imba is “an artistically finished church.” It can be found 15km south of Atsbi or 23km from Agulae.
DebreSelam Mikael Church
Mikael DebreSelam is undoubtedly one of the finest churches in its architectural design. It is a church within a cave or, as Ivy Pearce referred to it, “a church within a church”. The central door leads in to the anteroom with three huge built columns, a beautiful freestanding arch and striking Aksumite “Sandwich Style” constructions (a layer of wood then a layer of stone, painted alternating in black and white). The woodwork of the door and window shutters is exquisitely decorated in geometrical patterns including swastika-like symbols. Especially the middle window shutter is decorated with a 15th century wooden painting of the Virgin Mary and the Child. The ends of the protruding part of the wooden beams are round in shape and their presence adds beauty to the church. It is also known for its wealth of paintings, which can be seen on the walls and arches of the sanctuary, if one asks the priests specifically for it (bring a torch!). The art influence, according to Pearce, is Byzantine. It can be accessed by a 9 km gravel road north east of Atsbi plus a
The white sandstone escarpment that runs south – north between Frewoyni and Wukro and parallel to the road is, called the TsaedaImba meaning “white mountain”. The rocky scenic area is the home of one of the highly sacred places in the region.
If you are staying in Mekelle, the distance involved in arriving to the start of your walk are as follows: from Mekelle to Wukro is 47 km, and from Wukro to your start – point is 25 km, 72 km asphalt road all in all. The site consists of three old churches and a new one, each very different and all within 2km of each other.
MedhaneAlem at AdiKesho
MedhaneAlemAdiKesho is one of Tigrai’s oldest and finest rock-hewn churches estimated to date from the 10th or early 11th century. An unusual feature is the beautifully decorated narthex connecting the northern and southern ends of the church. Two doors lead to the interior of the church where the ceiling is supported by six huge square pillars. The ceiling is decorated with reliefs and geometrical patterns. Because of its immense height and massive pillars, this church resembles a cathedral. There are engravings on the walls and a croixpatêe on the right side of the back wall.
The most striking feature of this church is to be found in the recessed ceiling just after entering the left hand door way. Aksumite friezes approximately half a meter in height, decorate three sides of the recess.
Forming the dome of the recess is a beautiful, circular, shallow relief carved from the sandstone rock. Many bands of intricate circular patterns radiate out from an enclosed Greek cross at the center of the relief, the whole design resembling the decorated Tigrian circular bread loaf, the Himbasha. You can reach there after 15 minute drive from MedhaniAdiKesho and 5 minute drive from PetrosWepaulos
In the same area is another church, PetrosTefetsmeSemaet, which lies on the cliff side of the escarpment, 2740 above sea level. It is visible from the main road because of the White-washed façade. It is on the top of a bluff, reached by carefully climbing a rickety ladder and platforms placed against the cliff side.
Partially built of wood, stone and mortar, and partly a cave it boasts some fascinatingly primitive paintings. To some historians, these paintings have originality and liveliness often missing in other early period paintings of Ethiopia. Paul Henz, in his book Ethiopian Journeys, describe them, “… among the most interesting early paintings I saw anywhere in Ethiopia.”
The church has not been used for several years because it is difficult to reach. However, it will always be remembered for its difficulty ascent, ancient paintings and, of course, for the courage of ‘HalekaHalefomRetta, Tigrai’s last rock hewer! He takes pride in his being able to provide the local faithful with very easily accessible replacement church.