Rock-Hewn Churches of Gheralta

Ethiopian Orthodox Priest on a cliff outside one of the rock-hewn churches

Kristina: In mid-June Laura and I enjoyed an obligatory ‘vacation’ for a little over a week due to scheduling conflicts. Fortunately, we were able to use 3 of the days to tour the stunning rock-hewn churches in the Gheralta region of Tigray.

The churches were carved from cliff faces and caves between the 4th and 8th centuries, and a number were then painted with beautiful scenes from the Bible in the 16th century. The figures in the wall and ceiling paintings are unmistakably Ethiopian, with light brown skin and large, dark eyes. A refreshing departure from the Caucasian Mary and Jesus we often see on posters in Ethiopian homes.

Beautiful paintings hidden behind colorful cloth.

Laurstina admiring 16th century murals in a Gheralta church by candlelight.

Accessing some of the churches requires some pretty strenuous hiking, with short sections of vertical climbing, so we are unsure whether our awe upon seeing them was a result of their beauty – or the adrenaline high we had on making it there alive and in one piece! And we may well not have made it without our trusty entourage of “scouts” – local men who find that guiding hapless Ferenji up the most challenging sections is a good way to earn some money in the form of obligatory tips. At times they actually held us against the cliff and moved our hands and feet to the proper place. A living, breathing harness!

Sitting outside the church entrance…a few hundred feet up the cliff-side.

Tiny church entrance/exit.

It was remarkable to be traveling the same paths, and sit in the same dark, cool churches that Ethiopians have been occupying for the last 1,400 – 1,700 years. Several parts of the path looked like gym climbing wall, as centuries of Ethiopians  hands and feet had shaped perfect hand and foot holds. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer depth of history here.

Beautifully-painted ceiling.

The priest with an old, parchment-page Bible in our favorite church.

Laura: We’ve spent the last few days in Gheralta because we don’t have any work to do in Hagereselam or the other woredas. Gheralta is a beautiful place with a lot of rock-hewn churches. We visited the churches with a guide. The churches were so beautiful, but I can’t help leaving with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. Every single person we met wanted money. Even the littlest kids would look up at you and say “birr” with big eyes, or hold out notebooks and say “pen”. And the time that I actually gave to the little kids,  the guide said, “you know, it’s not good.  They won’t help their parents, they won’t go to school, they will always think about the next Birr.” He’s exactly right. But I kind of felt that way about everyone.

Little girls gathering outside the church entrance to observe the ferenji – and try to sell some handicrafts.

Each time we started climbing there would be at least one “scout” to help us on our way. In some cases, they were very useful – some churches were very hard to reach and the path went straight up rock faces sometimes, so we needed guidance about where to place our feet and hands. Clearly, very useful in those cases – I never felt really scared on the climbs, and I definitely would have if I had been alone. But everyone, everyone, everyone wanted money, and everyone was doing it for a tip. And then the tip – you haven’t asked for it (in fact they sort of force the service on you), but it was nice that they did it and very useful, so how much do you give?

Climbing up to a church with the help of our “scout”

On the one hand, I completely understand. On the other,  I end up feeling like everyone in the situation is reduced to slightly-less-than-full-human status: there are the askers and the givers, and that’s your identity…especially when the act is repeated again and again. Guilt-based systems are no fun – they’re designed so you’re not paying for the service, you’re giving money because you have more money than they do.

I know that this is the way many systems work, and perhaps it’s naive of me to be uncomfortable.  I’ll chalk it up to the fact that I’ve been spoiled by Mekelle: people aren’t used to tourists, so very few ask for money. That makes the connections that I do make feel all the fuller. And in Hagereselam, people don’t even ask if you’re there for tourism – the question is “what kind of research are you doing”? That’s the other extreme – absolutely no tourism whatsoever, just foreigners doing research!!

Local kids having some fun with our dirty car while we were inside paying for our guide.

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One Response to Rock-Hewn Churches of Gheralta

  1. Susan Harris says:

    Such a variety of thoughts and feelings, many uncomfortable, against the background of the incredible churches and the sense of the sweep of history.
    What is a Ferenji to do?

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