The stunning rock-hewn churches of Tigray may be the best kept secret of Ethiopia. Not many travelers make it here, but those that do can expect to be blown away not only by evocative churches, but also by sweeping views, fantastic hiking, great birdwatching and wonderful people. This is my account of what to do in Tigray in 3 days.
- Breathtaking views, be it from Maryam Korkor church on top of a mountain peak, or from your room at Korkor Lodge
- Defying gravity climbing to Abuna Yemata Guh
- Mystic church visits admiring old murals by candlelight
- Immersing yourself in bucolic local life, which is much the same as it has been for centuries
- Great birdwatching, including many endemic species
Unlike the more famous rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, Tigray’s churches are not below ground, but carved out of caves, often high on top of dizzying peaks. It takes more time and effort to get to them, but you will be rewarded by breathtaking views and will often have the place to yourself. Better not have a fear of heights though!
I highly recommend staying at Korkor Lodge, not far from the town of Hawzien and right next to the small village of Megab, a great base to explore the area. In my opinion one of the best eco-lodges in Ethiopia, Korkor Lodge has spacious, comfortable bungalows built in the local Tigrinia style. They are scattered around a lovely garden which is visited by lots of birds and they all have patios and stunning views of the Gheralta mountains. A stay includes tasty meals (by now served in a brand-new restaurant which was under construction during our visit).
To explore the surrounding churches you will need a car with a driver and a guide. The two often come together in Ethiopia. We were picked up at Mekele airport, the gateway to Tigray, by our fantastic guide, Gabriel (you can reach him on +25 1914539845 or via email, if the internet works, at email@example.com). Gabriel comes from Megab and knows the area very well, although, like most Ethiopians’, his stories often don’t match historians’ versions. Ethiopia is a very religious country, and many accept myths as history. You will probably be told of many churches that they date from the 4th century (and were made with the help of angels), but historians generally agree that they were made between the 9th and 15th centuries, and most murals are more recent. It is best to just go with the flow though!
Ethiopia is not known as a safari destination, but that doesn’t mean there is no interesting wildlife. People cohabit quite well with wild animals (a balance that is strained by ongoing population growth). Hyenas and different types of monkey can be found almost everywhere, although they are not always easy to see. Most of the level land in Tigray seems to be used for agriculture, but there is still plenty of animal life, also because only traditional farming methods are used. It’s a fantastic place for birdwatching, but also keep an eye out for small mammals like rock hyraxes, hares, mongoose, grivet monkeys and baboons!
Day 1: Abraha We Atsbeha and Megab
Aim to arrive early in Mekele, Tigray’s capital. There are regular flights from Addis Ababa with Ethiopian Airlines. It is about a two-hour drive from Mekele to Korkor Lodge. On the way, stop at Abraha We Atsbeha, the church of the twin kings, on the outskirts of Wukro. Unusually, this church is just a short walk up a flight of stairs. It has beautiful murals and lovely views over the plains and the Gheralta mountains in the distance, giving an idea of what’s to come.
You need to pay an entrance fee at each church, usually 150 Birr p.p. (although Abraha We Atsbeha happens to be 250). Tips are sometimes expected, for a helpful priest or (unsolicited) extra guides who assist you during your climb up. This makes it, for Ethiopia at least, expensive sightseeing, but just see it as spreading the money and encouraging the nascent tourism industry. As these cave-churches can be very dark it’s useful to bring a torch to see the murals (be careful with damaging flash photography though) but it’s even better to have the priest show you around by candlelight!
As it was a Saturday we made a stop at the atmospheric local market, something I highly recommend you do at some point during your trip. Just ask your guide about market days in the different villages.
After another hour or so on a dusty sand road we arrived at Korkor Lodge. That afternoon we decided to give the car a rest and go for a leisurely walk around the surrounding countryside, stopping for a coffee in the village of Megab. Tigray feels like a biblical land, stuck in time. The arid landscape is dotted with picturesque stone houses, goats and donkeys roam on plots of land demarcated by cacti, and most people wear traditional clothes. You’ll probably see shepherds in white robes complete with staff, and in the right season you’ll see oxen threshing grain. The only modern thing you’re likely to encounter are the ubiquitous mobile phones.
Kids can ask for money and be a little bothersome (euphemistically: “give me a pen”, we found that the best way to discourage them, while making them laugh, was to turn it right around and ask for a pen back), but otherwise people are only mildly interested and very kind. Unfortunately, few of those who don’t work in tourism speak any English so communication is difficult. (Almost everyone in Ethiopia is multi-lingual though: the official language is Amharic, but most regions have their own language too, in Tigray this is Tigrinia.)
Day 2: Abuna Yemata Guh
After a spectacular sunrise and hearty breakfast, we headed to Abuna Yemata Guh, a monolithic church halfway up a sheer rock pinnacle a short drive from Korkor Lodge. A real cave-church, all that is visible from outside is the round entrance. The amazing BBC video below gives a good impression of the heights involved.
The first part of the hike up is not too bad, although the altitude (Tigray lies at an elevation of 2000m and up) did leave me breathless from time to time. The second part consists of some serious clambering and climbing up a steep rock wall with only hand grips and foot holds. Barefoot, of course, as this is sacred ground. There are usually men with ropes to help with a particularly tricky bit, but after seeing an elderly Ethiopian lady gracefully ascend while holding her handbag, we decided we could do it alone, too. It looks more intimidating than it is, you don’t have to be particularly fit but it might not be suitable for everyone. Keep an eye out for rock hyraxes and vultures (including huge lammergeiers).
After clambering on top of a big boulder in the middle of the two pinnacles, a final dash along a narrow ledge gets you to the entrance of the church. This is more scary than dangerous, although the 250m drop is not something anyone would take lightly (except for our guide Gabriel). Architecturally simple, Abuna Yemata Guh is very atmospheric with beautifully preserved frescoes.
Feeling muscles we didn’t even know we had ache from the morning’s hike, we decided to take it easy the rest of the day. After lunch and relaxing at the lodge, Gabriel brought us to a spot near St. Georgis church with great sunset views. We decided to skip the church itself, which is supposedly not as beautiful as others, and just enjoyed the view with a beer.
Day 3: Maryam Papaseit and Maryam Korkor
Our next, and final, day in Tigray we had decided to start off easy with a morning hike to Maryam Papaseit church. For once, this church is not located on top of but under a mountain ledge, hidden in a green oasis. It takes about an hour’s walk through a picturesque valley to get there. Go early morning for great birdwatching. It took us twice as long to get there because we kept stopping to take pictures!
Maryam Papaseit is an atmospheric semi-monolithic church. Only the main sanctuary is hewn from the rock, and has some well-preserved murals, which the priest can show you by candlelight.
The afternoon we had decided to climb to Maryam Korkor, the church on top of the mountain directly in front of Korkor Lodge. It’s a steep and strenuous 1,5 hour hike up, sometimes clambering over rocks, but you will be rewarded by breathtaking views in all directions. Look out for baboons and rock hyraxes.
Maryam Korkor’s interior has beautiful architectural features, although its frescoes are faded. The church’s old priest and an even older nun live up here and rarely descend. When they die, they will be buried in the walls of the church, where you can see the bones of some of their predecessors.
Only a few minutes away is Daniel Korkor, a kind of chapel in the rock looking out over the valley. It is accessed via a ledge along a dizzying precipice, and a tiny door that also serves as the only source of light. The 20th century wall-paintings inside are beautiful and quite different from other churches.
These churches are the highlights in the area surrounding Korkor Lodge, but there are many more to visit in the region. After a while they do start to look similar, but I just couldn’t get enough of the landscape! I could easily have stayed much longer in this serene place. But although this was one of my favorite spots in Ethiopia, the rest of the country is amazing too! Check out this account of my 2 weeks in Northern Ethiopia for some ideas of where to go and what to do.