Undiscovered Ethiopia: Abuna Yemata Guh in Tigray - An aerial shot of Abuna Yemata Guh by the Guardian

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Undiscovered Ethiopia: Abuna Yemata Guh in Tigray

Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia, boasts over 100 ancient rock churches and a climb to Abuna Yemata Guh is a test of faith, writes Vivien Yap

“Put your feet in the exact spots as you’re told.” My friend Meron points out and I nod earnestly.

Balancing on a cliff face that plunges 400m (1,312ft) into the valley floor below, I clasp my fingers tightly into the wind-worn sandstone holes that are barely big enough for a tennis ball. Given the dire situation that I’m in, I listen to every instruction like it is God-given wisdom.

The local guides are superb. They move so swiftly, defying gravity like experts of some rare kung fu technique. “Right hand here, left foot there,” they say, delivering their simple but precise instructions while pointing to the right places. Slowly but skilfully, they help me and my friends make it to the ancient rock church at the pinnacle of the towering cliff.

The church is Abuna Yemata Guh, made famous by the BBC documentary “The most hardcore baptism you’ll ever see”. I am not here to be baptised, nor seeking to be closer to God, but all words fall short when I enter the small church that is hewn from the surrounding rock.

Standing in the middle of the dimly-lit room is the priest, a man with almond-shaped eyes and a soothing warmth that makes you feel instantly at ease. Ethiopians have an incredible ability to make visitors feel welcome without saying a single word; it’s most extraordinary. I don’t know why but I mumbled Hallelujah when the priest came to greet me – he understood, which made me grin from ear to ear. It was as if I had grown wings and now soared up to the clear blue sky.

The church is dedicated to Abuna Yemata, one of the nine Saints that came from Syria to the ancient Kingdom of Aksum in present-day Ethiopia. It’s said that the church was built in the 6th century.

As a typical Ethiopian Orthodox church, it is divided into three areas – a small section for music, a hall for Holy Communion and a sacred room holding a replica of the Ark of the Covenant. Ethiopians believe that their legendary Queen of Sheba went from Ethiopia to meet King Solomon in Jerusalem and bore him a son, King Menelik I. The king was raised in Ethiopia but later travelled to Jerusalem to meet his father. When he returned to Ethiopia, he brought with him the Ark of the Covenant. Today, every Orthodox church in Ethiopia has a replica of the Ark.

The Holy Communion area of Abuna Yamata Guh is richly decorated with amazing murals that depict the lives of the nine Saints. Many of the murals are still in their original near-perfect condition, mainly because of the low humidity and the shelter from sunlight the church provides.

Every Sunday, about 80 worshippers make the two-hour climb to attend the church service – this, I must say, puts me to shame. I can’t even make it to church regularly despite the nearest one being only a 15 minutes’ walk from my flat in London.

The holy book Teamre Mariam (Miracle of St. Mary) is one of the many miracle books that the priest would use to preach to his congregation. The book is made of sheepskin, its texts and pictures drawn in natural inks gathered from flora and fauna.

As the sun begins to lower into the horizon, we say goodbye to the priest. The journey down is equally as terrifying as the ascent, but my footsteps are light and my heart is full. Making it to the amazing Abuna Yamata Guh is like seeing God’s holiness; it feels as if something beautiful and divine is being revealed to you with each step you take.

Ethiopia has many hidden gems which will delight any cultural buff, and a trip to the Tigray region will not disappoint.

Getting there

Fly with Ethiopian Airlines to the capital Addis Ababa and save on domestic flights within Ethiopia.

Ethiopian Airlines has regular flights to Addis Ababa from many global destinations including Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Toronto in North America. The airline also flies to major European capitals such as Brussels, London, Paris and Stockholm. From Asia, you can take Ethiopian Airlines to Addis Ababa from Bangkok, Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, Seoul and Singapore.

The church sits in the Gheralta range, which is a treasure trove of ancient rock churches (120 of them altogether). To get there, take a domestic flight from Addis Ababa to Mekelle (journey time: 1 hour and 20 minutes). You can arrange for your local guide to meet you at the airport or hire a driver from Mekelle to the Gheralta range (journey time: 2 hours). Then you need to hike for another 2 hours up the escarpment (including a 10m vertical climb) to reach Abuna Yamata Guh. It’s best to make the climb early in the morning.

Getting a local guide

Gebre Wmariam is an excellent guide who can take you to the church (and other churches) around the area safely. He also runs trekking tours around the area. Email him at gebre.wmariam@gmail.com or call +251 (0) 914 539 845.

Accommodation

You can find local accommodation in Gheralta, or you can also stay in Wukro Lodge, an eco-lodge outside of Mekelle.

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