It must be said that if Abuna Yemata Guh, one of Ethiopia’s famed rock-hewn churches, were in Europe, everyone would know about it. It’s turning out to be something of a theme in Ethiopia (and is probably true for other developing nations, too): mind-blowing ancient monuments and unique landscapes seem almost completely unknown to “the outside world”, and certainly to me.
But the joy of visiting such places, of course, is that one gets a sense of doing something not many others have done, and there are few other tourists and next to no red tape.
Getting to this church – which sits at 2,580 metres above sea level – is mentally challenging, requiring seriously steely nerves at times. It’s known as the world’s most inaccessible place of worship, and having made the trek, I can see why!
The journey begins near Hawzen in the Tigray region, in the north of Ethiopia. By now I was used to the dry landscape of stratified table mountains and flat, wide plains full of scrubby plants.
The ascent involves a steep walk for 30 minutes or so in the heat of the day, after paying 150 birr (about five euros) for entry to the National Park and 200 birr (about seven euros) for ropes.
You then come to the difficult bit: climbing up a steep rock face with the aid of a local guide and a harness. This is not for those with a tendency to feel vertigo!
Don’t worry if you are a bit nervous, however, as the local guides are very experienced and helpful. After I was strapped into my harness, I was lifted and aided to each and every foothold and hand grip. There were a few dodgy moments, but mostly I felt very well-guided and made it to the top by channelling my inner Alex Honnold. The tension lasted for about 10 metres, then the worst was over.
There’s no need to feel too bad if you’re not up to the climb, however, because surveying the landscape from this vantage point is already a sight to behold.
There was still a bit of a scramble to reach the cave church itself – including a very high ledge of about 300 metres, which you must ease yourself along for about 10 metres. Wear stretchy clothes!
Here’s how that same climb would look from the other side, which puts it into perspective:
There are three types of churches in Ethiopia: monoliths (like UNESCO-recognised Lalilbela, which I also visited), semi-monoliths, and cave churches (like this one, which was in many ways more interesting and rewarding to visit than Lalibela). There are about 35 rock-hewn churches in total in the country, the highest concentration in the world.
The inside of Abuna Yemata Guh, which is in a cave with an incredible view of the landscape around it, is covered with paintings, some of them dating back to the fifth century. They reminded me of Egyptian hieroglyphs somewhat, with their strange eyes and sideways stances.
This cave church belongs to the Ethiopian Orthodox denomination, with which roughly 50 per cent of the Ethiopian population identify. According to local legend, the church exists at such elevation in order to bring the worshipper closer to God. I imagine that the struggle to get here also plays a role: a kind of test, perhaps, in order to prove yourself worthy.
The lack of humidity in this arid region seems to have preserved the paintings extremely well:
Human skulls – belonging to former priests, presumably – can be seen in the caves that surround the church. The living priest stood at the door of the church when we entered.
If anything, going down from the church was worse – but I retained an inner sense of calm this time, thanks to the hushed awe I’d felt upon entering the church. All in all it was 100 per cent worth the climb, but I won’t pretend I wasn’t really scared during the rope ascent. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who is at least as brave as me – it’s probably the coolest experience I had in Ethiopia, apart from seeing the monkeys in the Simien Mountains.