Ethiopia’s Tigray region, which occupies the country’s northernmost area, is home to some of the most significant historic and cultural sites in Northern Africa. Known especially for its rock-hewn churches that date back to the eighth century, Tigray’s archaeological history also encompasses its former prominence as a trading port and its status as the center of the Aksumite kingdom.
The mountainous terrain of Tigray is defined in part by steep plateaus that are between 5,000 and 11,000 feet in height. The eastern side is home to the Denakil Plain, where the Kobar Sink drops almost 400 feet below sea level. The Tekeze and Gash Rivers flow through the region. Throughout this unusual terrain are archaeological sites representing the region’s long, rich history.
Here are three of the region’s most unique sites:
The ruins of Aksum
Once a powerful center of culture and commerce, Aksum was the heart of ancient Ethiopia for hundreds of years. The city was built in the Ethiopian highlands near the country’s northern border in Tigray in the first century.
As a central point between Africa, the Arab world, and the Greco-Roman civilizations, the kingdom of Aksum became a powerful and wealthy civilization. It conducted ivory trade with Sudan. Aksumite fleets controlled trade in the Red Sea and, through the city’s port, into trading routes in northeastern Africa.
Today, many ruins from the kingdom of Aksum still stand on the Tigray plateau, including monolithic obelisks, tombs belonging to the royal family, and palace ruins. The oldest obelisk still standing is more than 23 meters high and is adorned with intricate carvings.
A taller obelisk, about 33 meters, lies on the ground among the ruins. Archaeologists believe it could have fallen when builders were trying to erect it, and it possibly is the tallest monolith that ancient people ever tried to erect. Ruins on the site date from the first to the 13th century.
Construction of a new museum on the site began in 2011.
Abuna Yemata Guh church
Featured in a 2014 Lonely Planet Traveller “bookazine” about the best and most inspirational places to visit on earth, Abuna Yemata Guh church may be one of the most awe-inspiring – and hard to reach – churches in the world.
The story behind the church’s founding in the fifth century revolves around Father Yemata. He was an Egyptian priest who walked to Tigray, climbed into the mountains, and quarried the church out of rock high on a cliff.
While the priest’s motivations for building such a unique church are unknown, Abuna Yemata Guh church has drawn visitors for centuries despite their having to cross narrow ledges, traverse a rickety bridge, and scale a 19-foot rock wall with no climbing ropes to reach it. Also called “the church in the sky,” Abuna Yemata Guh sits on a vertical spire of rock at 2,500 feet with sheer drops all around.
The church is still run by priests, some of whom have not left the mountain top in decades. Visitors making the ascent – who have included parents carrying newborns for baptism – are rewarded with stunning panoramic views of the Tigrayan landscape and an unequal atmosphere of peace and tranquility only possible at a church that literally sits in the clouds.
Gheralta Rock’s other cave churches
The Tigrayan landscape did not make early churchgoing easy for anyone, as ancients worked with the mountainous terrain to build houses of worship. Among the awe-inspiring cliffs and rock formations of the Gheralta Mountains, ancients transformed mountain caves into Ethiopian Orthodox churches. Some are more than 1,000 years old.
More than 35 cave churches were built in Gheralta, including Yemata church, which was likely erected between the fourth and the 13th centuries. Historians believe the tucked-away locations likely served to protect the churches from enemy armies travelling through nearby valleys and also brought worshipers physically closer to heaven.
To reach them, visitors must hike through canyons, walk along cliff edges, and free climb sheer rock walls. The trek to the cluster of churches begins one kilometer southeast of Megab village, and it is recommended that visitors hire a local guide to take them to the cave churches.
Once at the churches, visitors will be greeted with incredible architecture and frescoes, often well preserved, that represent the region’s long history of Christian worship.
For those wanting to overnight in the Tigrayan cliffs, the Gheralta Lodge offers 12 bedrooms that open to breathtaking mountain views. The lodge, which is owned by Italians, is constructed from local thatch, wood, and stone. It offers excellent food and a relaxing atmosphere.
Tigray’s diverse and unique culture continues to fascinate, and groups such as the Tigray Development Association actively work to keep the region’s traditions and history alive through festivals and educational events that celebrate Tigray. The region’s many historical sites, though some challenging to reach, provide a rare glimpse into Tigray’s long and important legacies of faith, culture, and commerce.