Tigray Churches Ethiopia

An introduction to the rock churches of Tigray Ethiopia’s most northerly region, Tigray, is also among its least explored. The birthplace of the Axumite Empire, Ethiopia’s rich Christian tradition was formed in this region, whose oldest sites of worship predate even the famous monoliths of Lalibela (in some cases by several hundred years!) Tigray is a region of great natural beauty and rugged landscapes, but undoubtedly the region’s main attraction is its rock churches. There are thought to be as many as 200 of these unique sites, though only a handful are regularly visited. The Tigray churches differ greatly in design and structure, ranging from free-standing stone structures to hidden cave churches and striking monoliths carved directly from the earth. The oldest date back to at least the 6th or 7th centuries BC, pre dating the arrival of Christianity to Ethiopia, while the most recent were constructed in the last 200 years. Many of the churches are still active, and serve as vibrant places of worship that come alive during Ethiopia’s major religious festivals. Here we provide a brief overview of some of the most notable of Tigray’s churches. All of these churches stand out for their unique design (Abune Abraham, Abre Atsbeha), or their dramatic location (the famous cliff-face church of Abune Yemata). Abune Yemata (Guh) – Rock-hewn church located high on Imba Mount (Gheralta) above the village of Megab – a steep climb is required to reach Abune Yemata. Architecture and paintings believed to have been built/ hewn following the monastic renaissance in the 13-16th century AD. Church has clear Byzantine influences. 30 min walk and 1 hour climbing with incredible view from the top. 8. Abune Abraham – One hour’s walk from the village of Degum, Abune Abraham was built in the 14th century and contains some of the most magnificent paintings of any church in the Tigray region. Its standout feature is a large architectural dome with 6 pillars. The church contains a number of artifacts, including a large ceremonial fan with wooden frame (1 metre in diameter), dating from the 15th century. 9. Yeha Temple – The ruined temple at Yeha is a huge, Bronze Age construction believed to have been built in the 7th or 8th centuries BC, making it roughly contemporary with the Parthenon in Athens! Almost certainly the oldest surviving building in Ethiopia, it tells us much about the pre-Aksumite era of Ethiopia’s history, of which historians otherwise know very little. 10. Debre Damo – 90km north-east of Axum, Ethiopia’s oldest monastery (6th century) is located on a high cliff and houses hundreds of monks. Its church is dedicated to Abune Aregawi, one of the ‘Nine Founding Saints’, who are said to have introduced Christianity to Ethiopia. Legend has it that Aregawi founded the monastery after he was carried to the top of the mount in the coils of a mystical serpent. With this legend in mind, male visitors to Debre Damo are hoisted to the church by a 15m leather rope, or “jende”, tied around the waist.

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