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The ancient rock churches of Tigray: An incredible faith journey

The act of mounting the cliffs of Gheralta is not for the faint-hearted, as an extreme adventure-hiking is required from the visitors. With the mountain moving faith of the Ethiopian Coptic priests, the journey to the cave churches of Gheralta becomes an incredible act of faith.

The ancient rock churches of Tigray: An incredible faith journey

By Anitta Bejoy
"If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and be planted in the sea'; and it would obey you."(Luke 17:6). With a faith like the centurion: an amazing and mountain-moving faith, life becomes possible in God. An unusual tale of the Coptic priests of Ethiopia, who scales hundreds of metres upward the sheer cliffs of Tigray, in a journey towards the 'Ultimate Salvation', is phenomenal as it sounds.

Hidden up high alongside the mountains of Gheralta, the stone-engraved churches give the faithful, a spiritually-elated feeling. Moreover, they served as a shelter from the invaders who attempted to eliminate the presence of Christianity in the region. The Gheralta is home to more than thirty Orthodox churches, built between the 4th and 15th century.

Tigray, considered as the cradle of Ethiopian civilization, safeguards the manifold cave churches of Ethiopia. The remarkable ones among them include: Abuna Yemata Guh, Mikael Debre Selam, Abuna Abraham, Abraha We Atsbeha, Maryam Korkor, Maryam Papaseit, Medhane Alem Kesho, Abuna Gebre Mikael, Daniel Korkor and Abba Yohanni.

Although architecturally unexceptional, the unreal rock structures, steep cliffs and the remarkable frescoes, kicks the journey toward Abuna Yemata Guh, up a notch. The act of mounting the cliffs of Gheralta is not for the faint-hearted, as an extreme adventure-hiking is required from the visitors. With the mountain moving faith of the Ethiopian Coptic priests, the journey to the cave churches of Gheralta becomes an incredible act of faith.

The Orthodox Coptic priest, Haylesilassie Kahsay, mounts a vertical cliff of 800 foot to reach Abuna Yemata Guh, the church he administers. Like an experienced mountaineer, he climbs the 10m vertical section(33 feet) to the church, perched above a frightening 2580m(8460 ft). The sight of the elaborately painted interiors of the church is a spiritually filling experience. “Your mind travels to whatever you choose to focus on. If you read a spiritual book and understand the secret, it brings you joy. If you read and understand the Word of God it tastes as sweet as honey”, says the priest who spends his time at the church, learning ancient books.


The well-preserved frescoes that fill the insides of the church, date back to the 15th century and are made of natural dyes. They depict the twelve apostles of Christ, nine painted on the ceiling, the remaining three on the sidewalls.

The journey to the church built by St. Abuna Yemata during the 6th century, has become manageable to Haylesilassie Kahsay, who does the two-hour long trek on a daily basis. “When I leave home towards the church, I become happy because I'm walking towards St. Abuna Yemata”, he says. The priests who have administered the churches in the past have been buried there and has no one risked their lives making the daring hike towards the splendid Abuna Yemata Guh.

The priest firmly believes that the Almighty One and the Nine saints have guarded him in the perilous journey to the church. Its a humbling experience in itself to observe the priest's daily effort in affirming his faith a remarkable journey towards 'The Church in the Sky'.

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