In search for Ethiopia’s atypical rock-hewn churches

JUAN MARTINEZ

February 16, 2021

In search for Ethiopia’s atypical rock-hewn churches

From the rock-hewn churches in Lalibela to the chapels in the Tigray region, visiting a church in Ethiopia is a travel experience you should not skip.

Ethiopians relationship with God is visible everywhere you go while visiting Ethiopia. No matter if you are going for business in Addis or to an adventure expedition in Danakil, it is difficult to pass next to a church and not feel the curiosity of taking an inside look. From the beauty of the structure itself, to the atmosphere you get from the congregants around it, there is something calling you in.

I visited Ethiopia a couple of times in the past years and even though religious tourism has never been a big interest to me, there was something special in Ethiopia, that I’ve never felt before.

While many churches and cathedrals in Europe became lately more like tourists attractions, in Ethiopia people still use their churches for the very first reason churches were built: to feel closer to God.

Ethiopian priest in Lalibela - Ethiopia-rock-church
Ethiopian priest in Lalibela

Ethiopia’s devotion to rock-hewn churches

From all types of churches and monasteries I came across while traveling around, there was nothing as fascinating and intriguing as Ethiopia’s rock-hewn churches. Made of a single block of stone, these structures were usually hewn into the ground or into the side of a hill.

There is not an exact number of how many rock-hewn churches are in Ethiopia. Most of them are located inside small caves and usually serve to congregate smaller groups of 5-10 people. These tend to not be lavish in any form, but simply provide a common room for the prayers and a small private area for the priest. They also have displays of religious art, which is very popular all over the country.

Pilgrim visiting Lalibela's rock-hewn churches
Pilgrim visiting Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches

Abuna Yemata Guh is probably the world’s most impressive chapel built inside a cave. This monolithic church is located northeast of Ethiopia in the Hawyen woreda of the Tigray Region and is famously known for being situated facing a cliff of 300 meters. Also, in order to reach its entrance doors, pilgrims have to climb on foot all the way to the top and risk a certain death if they fall down.

Locals and foreigners climbing up to reach Abuna Yemata Guh in Ethiopia
Locals and foreigners climbing up to reach Abuna Yemata Guh in Ethiopia

Visiting Abuna Yemata Guh is a lifetime experience. There is not another church in the world, where risking death is involved in the journey and once you reach the top, you understand why people do it. The idea of climbing closer to God and the adrenaline of going up 300 meters without ropes leaves anyone speechless and curious to understand more how religion plays such a big role all over the world.

Abuna Yemata Guh from the air
Abuna Yemata Guh from the air

Exploring the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela

While Abuna Yemata Guh might be by far the most exciting church visit in the world, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are considered the most important churches in terms of archeology and culture.

These 11 monolithic churches are located in the town of Lalibela, north of Ethiopia, and to this day, they remained as one of the most important places of pilgrimage for the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church. They were built approximately in the late 12th and early 13th century and contrary to the cave chapels in Tigray, these were directly carved out of the stone of the area.

Read more: Exploring Lac Abbe und Lac Assal in Djibouti

Ethiopia's rock churches - St George Church in Lalibela
St George Church in Lalibela is one of the many rock churches in Ethiopia

Doors, windows, columns and details in the façade were chiseled in such a detail, that is difficult to believe this was a single piece of rock at some point. Furthermore, the churches of Lalibela have a large system of drainage ditches and trenches, as well underground catacombs for religious events – a complete marvel in engineering.

Biete Ghiorgis (Church of St. George) is the most famous church in Lalibela. It is particularly known for its cross shape and incredibly amount of detail in the construction. It is becoming a very popular tourist destination and unfortunately, it might slowly take the same path as other beautiful churches in the world – such as Sacre Croix in France or the Vatican.

There is also big controversy surrounding the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, as the UNESCO protecting shelters covering five of its churches are not only overshadowing the beauty of the places itself, but also posing a danger to the buildings underneath due to its weight.

Read more: Visiting the Danakil depression in Ethiopia

Details of the St George Church in Lalibela,  Ethiopia
Window details of the St George Church in Lalibela, Ethiopia

I went to Ethiopia not expecting to feel involved so much in any religious experience. However, visiting a church in Ethiopia, rock-hewn or not, became to me a very particular way to understand Ethiopia a little bit better. I enjoyed visiting these temples and seeing the joy of the people while praying to God. Although I have been always skeptical about the existence of God, I could feel why people come here and pray.

Read more: Abuna Yemata Guh, Ethiopia’s Church In The Sky

Pilgrims inside one of the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela
Pilgrims inside one of the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela

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