My friends Malcolm and Kristina (from the Manda Wilderness Community Trust and Nkwichi Lodge) went to Ethiopia and I didn’t talk to them for over a month. And not because I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. I’ve wanted to return to this magical country for years …
The Effort of Going to Church
A small door opened 10 metres above us and a priest’s head appeared. He grinned through yellowed teeth and shouted a response. My eyes fell back down the cliff-face, and I glanced a little abjectly at my guide. “It’s not easy to get to heaven!” he said, noticing my reticence, as a thick rope made of plaited leather tumbled to our feet from above. I looked at the floor of the desert, a few thousand feet below, to the fraying fallibility of the rope and for perhaps the first time in my life, felt a little unlucky I wasn’t a woman.
We were standing waiting at the bottom of the cliff that would give us access to Debre Damo, one of Ethiopia’s holiest and hardest-to-reach churches. My guide, Gabriel, had led me up a steep mountain path and then a series of zigzagging steps until we eventually stopped at the final hurdle, one of us breathless, the other calmly chewing on a stalk of grass. My girlfriend waited in the village below, an unfortunate holder of a Y chromosome and therefore forbidden from entering the holy site, which was lived in by over 100 monks and priests. Apparently female animals weren’t allowed either, I explained to her the night previously, which didn’t really placate her at all.
Visiting the rock-hewn churches in the north of Ethiopia is no simple matter, and I defy any grown man not to feel like Indiana Jones as he’s scaling a vertical wall or shimmying along a dusty, 20-inch-wide shelf a few thousand feet high, an ashen-faced Coptic priest guarding the secret door at the end.
Gabriel and I watched as the priest nimbly followed the rope down, scaling the cliff in his woven sandals as confidently as a Ukrainian contortionist showing off at Twister. He joked and cajoled with my guide as he strapped what appeared to be a homemade cowhide harness to me before shouting up to the empty little doorway where the rope disappeared. Another small head popped out, nodded curtly and darted back inside. I felt the rope go taut, turned my head briefly and caught the expectant smiles of my guide and the priest, before half-scrambling/being half-dragged up the cliff. Only once I’d ungracefully hauled my backside into the small opening by slithering through on my stomach was I able to stand and meet the robed Hercules who’d heaved me up. It was more than a little disconcerting to find a small wiry priest-lad, barely a sweat on his tufted upper lip.
Debre Damo stands on top of an amba, or flat, anvil-shaped mountain top, which offers the sort of epic panoramas you’d expect from a North Face advert. There’s so much dust and rock, scree and sand that it looks like the quarry that God left behind after fashioning the mountains of the world. Terraces tumble down the mountainsides, canyons scar the desert floor and the sky seems to struggle to keep the landscape together. Gabriel pointed out a shimmering Somalia to the North, only a few miles away yet separated by a ridge of impenetrable precipices.
We visit the church itself, built of wattle and daub, and enter into the dark coolness of the inner sanctum, a welcome respite from the squinting blindness outside. A frail old priest holds the door open to throw light up to the painted ceilings and the benign faces of the saints and apostles staring down at us. Just as our eyes accustom, the priest politely, or perhaps involuntarily, coughs and taking it as a sign we step once more into the heat of the day. We amble through the village atop the amba, a motley collection of brick walls and houses, where the priests and monks live and pray, the line between the two seemingly indistinct. Water holes have been excavated here and there, and a rim of cacti frames the village edge, a final barrier against intrusion. Some of the priests have remained up here for 30 or 40 years, sending only their young novices down to the village below for supplies.
In fact, the difficult-to-reach nature is a feature of many of the rock-hewn churches in Tigray. Partly, as Gabriel had told me, to symbolize the struggle required to reach heaven and partly do to expediency; many of the churches were built at a time when surrounding lands were being conquered by Islam and the ambas and cliffs offered a defense that few would dare scale. The story goes that 9 saints left Syria and arrived in Axum, one of the great ancient civilizations of the world (and of which we know the least), from where they then spread out through the region building churches that would remain in use for the next 1500 years.
Abu Yemata was one of these 9 priests, and he is responsible for building one of the most inaccessible, and thrilling to visit; Abuna Yemata Guh. Though not, as I soon discovered, with a bout of food poisoning courtesy of some suspect injera the day previously. After a little lackluster haggling for the price of the guide at the bottom of the mountain, interspersed with a discreet retch on the other side of a tree, we had set off toward the church positioned, it seemed, in the middle of the sky. Snaking and scrabbling our way up the slope we stopped just as I felt my stomach might like to try another escape. This rest turned out to be the cold-sweated calm before the storm and as I gathered my thoughts and intestinal strength I wondered why someone had put this rather uneven wall in front of us. The guide must have noticed my expression for he laughed, unceremoniously grabbed my buttocks, and shoved me upwards. My memory has since gone blank at how he managed to get me to the top but I seem to recall it involved a sort of Spiderman manoeuvre on the part of the guide, scurrying around me in a flash of robes, placing my feet and hands in different holds worn smooth by the passage of many a pilgrim.
After crawling the final stages, I sat and stared exhaustedly out at the wide expanse of earth below us. Unfortunately my stomach rebelled one last time and the priest we found there, and my guide, look on nonplussed as I throw up next to an ancient burial cave. I’d have been mortified if I didn’t just want to curl up upside the cave myself. With shaky knees and a light head, I stumbled the last few yards along a narrow cliff ledge and entered the church, excavated entirely out of the cliff-face itself. More dust-filled darkness awaited and as I caught my breath, my eyes made out more of the detail of the small room, and the frescoes which adorn every inch. We find another priest there too, who, I am informed, walks up and down to the church each day. What’s more, the priest himself tells me, almost off-handedly, that many of his congregation make the trip there at least weekly, and some are older than him (making them at least 90, if lines in a face can be read in the same way as tree-rings).
Back in the hotel, several Imodium and bottles of water later, I think in wonder at the devotion that exists in the people of Tigray to spur them to make such climbs regularly, and the attraction of a religion still thriving after thousands of years.
We glean one possible reason when we visit Medhane Alem Kesho the following day, one of the oldest rock-hewn churches in the country (some do let women in, though only the easily accessible ones I taunt my girlfriend, who reposts with a thinly-disguised reference to my feeble, pity-seeking whimpering upon my return the previous day). Set atop a somewhat easier climb, the church is a magnificently crafted cavern, with the arches apparently holding up the mountain itself. At the end of a service, which has lasted for 6 hours and has seen many of those inside on their feet the whole time, most of them in their 60s and 70s, shoulders are stretched and smiles break out. We are invited to break fast with the priests and retire to a small building where injera and wat have been brought up from the village below. We perch on rickety wooden benches and are served in Chinese plastic bowls and handed beakers of a juice made from barley and beans. There are at least 20 priests crammed in, who chat and laugh, and make us feel as welcome as if we had just been through the whole ceremony with them. Despite the churches being inaccessibly thrust up in the sky, the priests are wonderfully down-to-earth.
In fact, one of the most fascinating things about many of the churches of Ethiopia is their vivacity, and continued relevance as the pace of Ethiopia’s development quickens. They’re not foreboding, vacuous structures as in Europe, made all the more solemn by the paucity of attendees, their voices lost in the echoes of the eaves; they’re living entities where people meet and worship, rejoice and unwind, marry and mark the passing of life. They’re places where people celebrate their faith and tradition, and remember those whose efforts left their lifeblood in the very rock of the land.