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It’s Terrifying Trying to Get to These 15 Mountain Churches—But Stunning Once You Do

Prepare to hold your breath in awe—and possibly in fear.

To get to them, you’ll need to creep through tunnels hidden in rocks and climb 1,000-foot vertical cliffs while a guide literally points out the next safe hold for your bare foot and hand. But then you’ll see them: Ethiopia’s famous rock-hewn churches—hundreds of them, carved out of the mountains themselves. Although not all are so dramatically reached, they’re each full of ancient, mysterious quietude.

There are two regions where these medieval Christian churches cluster. Generally, Lalibela’s churches’ have more dramatic architecture, while Tigray’s older structures reside in more spectacular landscapes where buttes rise to the sky like stalagmites.

There are more than 120 in Tigray and 11 in Lalibela (legend says these were built in one night by determined angels, although King Lalibela’s biography admits to the more realistic span of 24 years—still helped by angels). Lalibela’s churches respectively constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The churches usually have three parts: the most holy place, only open to the priest; the inner ambulatory (a covered passage encircling the interior space) for communicants at mass; and the outer ambulatory, open to visitors.

Ethiopia’s Christianity dates to the 4th century with the adoption of Coptic Christianity. It gained power five centuries later with stories of the mythical Queen of Sheba departing from her Ethiopian palace to meet King Solomon in Jerusalem. She came back pregnant; their son Menelik was the founder of Ethiopia’s Solomonic dynasty. Legend meshes with reality as Ethiopia’s last emperor Haile Selassie, who was assassinated in 1975, claimed descent from Menelik.

Prester John, also called King Iskindir, deserves mention, too. He sent a letter in the year 1165 to the Greek emperor Manuel I Komnenos saying Ethiopia possessed the fountain of youth, jewels could be found everywhere, and his magic mirror showed him everything going on within his 79 kingdoms. In the year 1400—an improbable 235 years later for Prester John to still be alive—England’s King Henry IV sent him a letter seeking assistance in fighting Islam.

This is the beauty of a land where archaic secrets may hold a glint of truth. The rock-hewn churches are still in use, with priests who must be tipped and doors that must be unlocked—and perhaps you will stumble across a worship ceremony in progress. You must remove your shoes, and be aware that some churches do not permit women, who in any case must keep their shoulders covered.

Some of these structures’ antique beauty is marred by a temporary modern covering, but it’s important to afford them that protection. Over the last few decades, paintings, sculptures, and bas-reliefs have been damaged. Another fear is—you guessed it—the impact of tourism. So tread lightly and honor the spaces which have been sacred and inaccessible to all but the very intrepid and faithful for centuries.

INSIDER TIP Ethiopian Christians have long claimed to be in possession of the Ark of the Covenant, called Tabota Seyen, saying Menelik stole it from Jerusalem. Every church in Ethiopia hides within its Holy of Holies a tabot, a replica of the tablets kept within the Ark—commonly known as the ten commandments—and the tabots are reverently paraded through the streets on the Jan. 19 festival of Timkat.

1 OF 15

Abune Yemata Guh

WHERE: Tigray Region

Hit your gym’s rock wall before you arrive. Abune Yemata Guh requires scaling a rock face on foot and crossing over plunging depths on bridges that may seem less stalwart than you’d hope. Once you arrive, the insides are awe-inspiring with full-color frescoes, including a circular treatment of Ethiopia’s famed Nine Saints. Bonus: a Bible you may ask to view, with pages made of goatskin. Father Yemata built the church in the 5th century by boldly attacking the cliff face.

2 OF 15

Maryam Korkor

WHERE: Tigray Region

At the top of a sandstone massif, this is one of the largest rock-hewn churches in the Gheralta area and is just a few hundred yards away from the slightly higher Daniel Korkor (in fact, you can visit both as well as Abune Yemata Guh in one day). Its murals painted on sandstone may also be the oldest, possibly from the 12th century. Sunlight filters through the pillars, creating an unearthly mood.

INSIDER TIPA man from Addis Ababa began carving a new church also called Maryam Korkor in 2016, following a vision of Mary telling him to do so. The following year, work stalled as he died, reportedly of suicide. The University of Toronto reports that 40 such new rock-hewn churches are underway in Ethiopia.

3 OF 15

Daniel Korkor

WHERE: Tigray Region

This small two-chambered church sports a hollowed-out niche just outside the front door where a hermit monk would sit to contemplate the vast valley below. You, too, can avail yourself of the miles-wide vista of Gheralta landscape below and the charming rustic murals inside. The “bridge” from Maryam Korkor is simply a narrow ledge: hold your breath on and don’t look down.

4 OF 15

Mikael Debre Selam

WHERE: Tigray Region

Built within a cave that was a far older place of worship, the church’s whitewashed portico boasts three large columns, while the interior includes woodcarvings and frescoes. Sealed in a cave higher up the cliff face are the remains of 6th century Emperor Gebre Meskel, around whose time the church was built.

5 OF 15

Abune Abraham Debre Tsion

WHERE: Tigray Region

This very large structure with a high-domed ceiling supported by six pillars is named for the monk Abune Abraham. It is said he would pray outside on sharp rocks, wiggling to increase the effect of his passive form of self-flagellation, although there is also a decorated cell inside the church that is reputed to be his personal prayer room.

6 OF 15

Yohannes Maequddi

WHERE: Tigray Region

An hour’s walk from Debre Tsion, Yohannes Maequddi is a fastidiously-painted basilica of a style considered Byzantine, quite different from other churches in Gheralta. Its wall and ceiling frescoes are iconically beautiful. Popular imagery includes a decapitated John the Baptist, separated from his surprised head. Men and women worshipers enter via separate doors.

7 OF 15

Abraha We Atsbeha

WHERE: Tigray Region

Perhaps the best example of a rock-hewn church in Tigray, it is large with riotously-colorful paintings inside depicting battles with riders astride vengeful horses; a mural cycle portrays the history of the Ethiopian Church. Climb a curving stone staircase to reach the church. Somber stories accompany the site, with twin kings’ mummies kept in a box in the Holy of Holies (the last attempt to open the box resulted in burned hands for the snoopy priest who attempted it). There are stories of stones giving off supernatural light, an attacking queen, and a punishing wind that once swept her off the cliff to her death.

8 OF 15

Medhane Alem Adi Kesho

WHERE: Tigray Region

Legend says Christ himself built this church. If you examine the path to the church, you’ll see holes that his horse’s hooves are said to have created. Its facade is perhaps unassuming and isn’t embedded in a dramatic cliff face, but that is fitting for the man who—prepare: Indiana Jones reference on the way—would use a rustic stone chalice rather than one made of gold. An easy hike leads you here.

9 OF 15

Maryam Papaseit

WHERE: Tigray Region

Another easily accessed church with zero climbing involved, Maryam Papaseit sits in a lush oasis of palms and acacias, with accompanying bird-watching. Only the Holy of Holies is rock-hewn; the rest of the church dates much later. A priest will show you the murals with a hand-held candle in this dim interior.

10 OF 15

Abune Gebre Mikael

WHERE: Tigray Region

Reaching Abune Gebre Mikael involves jumping rock slabs and crawling beneath others. After such strenuousness, the bright yellow and blue paintings, like a sacred Ikea, are a feast for the eyes. They adorn the high-domed ceiling and pillars of this church, while light and shadow interplay on the cobblestoned floors.

11 OF 15

Debre Damo

WHERE: Tigray Region

You get major props if you visit this church because it requires climbing a 50-foot cliff by way of a rope made of leather (it’s said that Saint Za-Mikael Aregawi was assisted by a serpent commanded by God to wrap its tail around him and convey him upwards). As if that isn’t challenging enough, this church (the oldest standing church in Ethiopia) is only open to men.

12 OF 15

Bete Giyorgis

WHERE: Lalibela Region

This striking cruciform church is actually carved within a pit in the ground; you will descend rather than ascend. You use a slim canyon that transitions to tunnels to get to the bottom. Saint George (“Giyorgis”) appeared in a vision to King Lalibela lamenting that he had been forgotten; the king promptly undertook construction to keep the dragon-fighting saint’s name alive. “Bete” means “house” in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia.

INSIDER TIPA tunnel system connects Bete Giyorgis with other sunken churches.

13 OF 15

Bete Medhani Alem

WHERE: Lalibela Region

This is said to be the largest monolithic church in the world. It actually appears quite modern for something built during the 12th century; one Facebook commenter said it looks like a Wells Fargo bank. It contains five aisles and 34 columns on the exterior (with three clustering on each corner to remind viewers of the holy trinity) and 38 inside. It’s home to the 12th century Lalibela Cross, an 11-pound national treasure that was stolen in 1997 and sold to a Belgian collector for $25,000. It was returned to the church in 2001.

14 OF 15

Bete Qeddes Mercoreus

WHERE: Lalibela Region

This church, which has experienced some unfortunate crumbling, is thought to perhaps be a former prison because of ankle shackles discovered there. However, the titular Saint Mercurios was once bound in iron fetters in advance of his beheading; could the shackles be a reference to his martyrdom? If you approach via the Bete Gabriel-Rufael tunnel, you will be in total darkness; this portion is said to represent hell, so hold off on your cell phone flashlight to have a genuine experience.

15 OF 15

Genneta Maryam

WHERE: Lasta

Built in the 1200s and standing freeform apart from the clusters of churches of Tigray and Lalibela, Genneta Maryam’s dramatic roof shows four low-relief arches in which Christian crosses are so long-legged they almost look like swords. The monolithic church sits atop an outcropping 15 miles from Lalibela. Rich paintings inside depict elephants, saints, angels, and birds, and include inscriptions, something not found in the Lalibela complex save for one church.