Ethiopia is incredibly gifted when it comes to ancient artifacts. It’s no surprise, really — the country is home to at least two ancient civilizations. Its citizens practice what is arguably the oldest continuously practiced form of Christianity in the world. Around the 13th century, this gave rise to the construction of hundreds of rock hewn churches — most famously at Lalibela (read about visiting them here). But the little-visited, remote region of Tigray (sometimes spelled Tigrai) also contains dozens of these gems. If you want to get way off the beaten path, the Tigray churches are the place to go.
Tigray is not the easiest part of Ethiopia to get around. And many of the churches are well off the main road. Most travelers opt to either hire a driver (budget $80 a day plus church fees and tips) or trek with Tesfa Tours.
But with determination and flexibility, you can visit some of the Tigray churches quite easily on public transport. In this post, I’ll walk you through how to make it happen.
What are the Tigray Churches?
The rock hewn churches of Tigray are a set of active Christian shrines along Ethiopia’s northern border. Some of them arguably pre-date Lalibela, and most were probably constructed before the 16th century.
The churches contain religious paintings (in various stages of decomposition) and architectural features celebrating ancient Christianity. Some also house manuscripts and other important religious artifacts.
Unlike their counterparts in Lalibela, the Tigray churches are generally not monoliths. Rather, they’re carved out of the spectacular cliffsides of Tigray’s escarpments.
While the churches themselves are incredible, this is one part of Ethiopia where half the fun is in the journey. The region of Tigray is quite different from the rest of northern Ethiopia — it lacks the emerald-green mountains, and instead resembles the deserts of the Southwest USA. It’s especially beautiful in rainy season when the wildflowers are in full bloom.
Know before you go
Importantly, the rock hewn churches of Tigray are not primarily geared toward tourism. In fact, some almost never see tourist traffic at all. They do, however, see a daily parade of worshipers, priests going about their business, and hermits occupying their grounds.
You’ll most likely be welcomed as a visitor, but there are some practicalities to keep in mind as you plan your visit.
Finding the key
Many of the rock hewn churches are quite remote. So the priests who manage them might not hang around all day. Maybe they live off-site and occasionally work in the fields. Or maybe they have to run to the market. At some churches, the priest may only be there during services.
And when the priests aren’t around, the churches stay locked. So the first step in visiting any church is to locate the priest with the key.
If you’re at one of the more popular churches, this is pretty easy. If he’s not on the grounds, he’s probably nearby — and someone can call him for you. But at more remote churches, you may find yourself knocking on lots of doors, or seeking out local help in tracking him down.
The ability to correctly pronounce the name of the church in Tigrigna (the local language, very similar to Amharic) is essential. And remember to tip anyone who goes out of their way to assist you. Lastly, there is no guarantee that you’ll find the priest and that he’ll be willing to let you in, so patience and flexibility are key.
Getting to the church
Once you’ve located the key, the next hurdle is actually reaching the church. Sometimes this isn’t a challenge at all. Other times, it requires literally scaling cliffs.
Most of Tigray’s churches are located on hilltops, in cliffsides, or other hard-to-reach places. Reaching Abuna Yemata Guh — among the most famous and photographed of the churches — requires the assistance of ropes and harnesses. It’s not ideal for anyone prone to vertigo.
Most churches at the very least require a hike of a kilometer or more, often including a steep climb at the end. A handful are accessible to those unable to hike: Wukro Chirkos and Abreha We Atsbeha require climbing just a few stairs.
Additionally, women aren’t always welcome in the Tigray churches. We’re forbidden from Debre Damo Monastery, for instance (although they’ll be glad to take your $10 admission fee and let you into one building in exchange). All the churches covered in this post are open to both men and women, but don’t tempt anyone to ban you by wearing clothes that cover to your elbows and knees.
In a country as affordable as Ethiopia, and a region as remote as Tigray, it often surprises travelers to learn that visiting the churches is not a particularly budget-friendly activity.
At the very least, you’ll have to pay a $7.50 entrance fee at each church. Sometimes this is a formal entrance fee with a ticket. Other times it’s more like a “donation” to the church. Some priests may try to charge you more — which is probably fair if he was horribly inconvenienced by your visit (like, had to hike 2 hours up a cliff just for you).
On top of that, the priest will expect a tip for showing you around and opening the church for you. Again, this should correspond to how far out of his way he went and how good his tour was. You should tip at least $2, though, even at tiny and easily-accessible Wukro Chirkos.
Add onto that the tips you’ll be expected to pay anyone who helps you locate the priest and/or the church itself (a few birr to local kids to up to $2 for someone who walks with you for a couple kilometers to find him). Anyone who carries your bag up a steep hillside will expect a small note. Folks will act offended when you tip them in order to extract more from you — don’t fall for it; $2 max is totally fair.
In short, it’s hard to walk away from visiting a single church for less than $15. In Gheralta, the mandatory guide tacks on an additional $15. Worth it? Yes. But it can make you feel like a walking ATM machine at times.
Three Tigray churches you can visit on public transport
The remoteness of many of the Tigray churches makes them difficult to reach without your own wheels. But three clusters of them are reasonably accessible. Aside from Wukro Chirkos, you should still consider any of these churches a full day trip, and set out early. For more information about the more-remote Gheralta cluster, Debre Damo Monastery, and hiring a car/guide/scout, click here.
Wukro Chirkos is by far the most convenient of the Tigray churches for independent travelers to visit.
The church is in the suburbs of the small town of Wukro and you can walk from the town center. Follow the main road out of town heading north. When you pass an Oil Libya station, take a right down the dirt road and follow it up the hill. (Look for the blue sign.)
The church is almost always open, has a formal ticket window, and tourists are welcomed. The interior is adorned with several important paintings. Unfortunately, many were damaged by a fire back in the 16th century, but some are still in beautiful condition.
The priest’s English isn’t great, but he is very open to being photographed and you’ll get a general sense of the significance of the paintings and religious artifacts in the church from him.
Wukro is an hour and a half by minibus from Mekele, about the same from Adigrat, and an hour from Hawzien. You could easily visit the rock hewn church on a day trip from any of those towns. Coming from Axum it’s a four-hour journey and you may have to change vehicles in Adigrat.
Wukro is also the friendliest town I encountered in Ethiopia and it’s well worth spending the night, if time allows. The road south of the bus station is lined with cheap and cheerful hotels. I stayed at Dongolo Park Hotel ($7.50 a night). It was clean, well-managed, and comfortable. It had hot water, but no internet access.
Don’t miss eating at Ersayem Restaurant (signed from the main road in English, but the restaurant itself is signed only in Amharic). You can find it down a very dark dirt path 300m north of the bus station. Sit at a low-slung table surrounded by traditional decor and order a plate of whatever’s on offer. Often only vegetarian food is available, and no English is spoken. But the food is fantastic and a huge plate of injera plus a drink cost me a whopping $1.50.
If you have some extra time in town, spend it at the museum (coming from town, take a right at the roundabout on the north end of the main road). It just opened in 2016 and provides a good overview of the region’s history.
Finally, remember that you’re in a pretty scruffy town in a pretty remote corner of Ethiopia. Don’t expect to find tons of Western amenities. When I was there, the entire town experienced a 24-hour water cut. The power went out as I was walking back from dinner and I wouldn’t have found my way back to my hotel without my headlamp. Internet is non-existent, the roads are mostly dirt, and the supermarket is a one-room shop. It’s all part of the adventure.
This cluster of three rock hewn churches lies about 20 km north of Wukro, on the main road to Adigrat.
The names of the churches are Petros and Paulus Melehayzenghi, Mikael Melehayzenghi, and Medhane Alem Adi Kesho. The latter is widely considered the most impressive of the three.
None of the churches are along the main road, and you’d have to walk about 5 km total to see all three. Unfortunately, walking along the dusty back streets of Tigray means unless you have a guide, you’re likely to face lots of hassle from adults wanting to be your guide and from kids either begging or throwing stones at you.
Due to a combination of bad weather and lack of time, I didn’t end up going to Teka Tesfai. However, I did pass through on a minibus and can vouch for public transport being easy to find along the main road. You should have no trouble getting to and from the churches in a day by minibus, provided you start early.
Wukro is the best base for the Teka Tesfai churches. You could also visit them on a day trip from Adigrat, but Adigrat is a far more unpleasant city where I wouldn’t want to spend the night.
Abuna Yemata Guh
I saved the best for last. The most iconic of the Tigray churches, Abuna Yemata is a destination for the truly adventurous. Fortunately, it’s also a fairly accessible one.
Unfortunately I was unable to visit Abuna Yemata due to torrential downpours when I was in the area. The cliff climb was unsafe. I compiled the information in this section from other travelers I met in Hawzien and Mekele, and the owner of Gheralta Lodge.
Abuna Yemata is literally inside a cliff, 750 meters up. Even if you take a car or bajaj (Ethiopian tuk tuk) as far as the road will take you, you still have to hike for 1 km and then scale the remaining 200 meters up the side of the cliff. Luckily, the days of undertaking this feat completely unsupported are over — there are ropes and harnesses now. If heights terrify you, skip this church.
To get here, you’ll first have to stop at the Gheralta Guides Association in Megab (see below). Megab is about 5 km south of Hawzien. Most people arrange a bajaj — you’ll have no trouble finding one in central Hawzien. Be prepared to walk back if you don’t pay the driver to wait for you. Bring plenty of water and snacks.
Once you’ve picked up your guide, walk or continue with the bajaj an additional 3.5 kilometers. Then, you’ll turn onto the path described above to reach the church.
Gheralta Guides Asssociation
Abuna Yemata is in the region known as Gheralta. All the Gheralta churches mandate that you visit with a guide from the Gheralta Guides Association. This informal collective (some might say cartel) operates from the village of Megab, just south of Hawzien.
The association mandates guides for any and all Gheralta churches. The fee is $14 for a group of up to three, and goes up from there. While it sounds like a great way to generate some income for the community, the unfortunate truth is it’s a huge headache.
The guides do little or nothing to protect you from — and sometimes even actively promote — the dozens of kids and adults who see tourists as walking ATMs. Often you’ll have to pay your guide fee, and then extras for someone to carry your bag, help you up the cliffside, etc. All in all, it can make for a pretty expensive and draining day. To make the most of it, try to arrange stops at several other churches with your guide on the way back. Be clear about exactly what you expect to get –and exactly what you’ll have to pay — before you set off.
Don’t even think about setting out in Gheralta without a guide. You have little-to-no chance of finding any churches (which are hidden in cliffs), and even if you could find them, the priests wouldn’t let you in. Everyone knows the rules and you won’t end up saving money by trying to break them. You’ll just end up with a bunch of shady local “guides” tagging along demanding money the whole time.
Hawzien (also spelled Hawzen) is by far the most pleasant base for visiting the Tigray churches. And it’s all thanks to the absolutely perfect Gheralta Lodge.
This Italian-run place lies in the hills just outside Hawzien (a 1 km walk from the bus station). It has its own private escarpment that you can hike up for spectacular views across all of Gheralta. The beautiful gardens, characterful rooms, and cozy lounge all add to the mountain-cottage feel.
Even better, the lodge serves outstanding Italian meals. Dinner here was among the highlights of my trip to Ethiopia.
The lodge has hot water and 24-hour electricity, but no WiFi (although it might have it in dry season). Book in advance. I got a single room for $25 in rainy season.
Hawzien is kind of out on a limb, but you can easily get a minibus to Wukro if you leave in the morning. Otherwise, or to get to Adigrat or Mekele, change in Frewayni. You can get through to Axum in a day if you leave by 7:30 am, but it requires two changes of vehicle (Frewayni and Adigrat).
Most people visit the Tigray churches as an extension of the “historical circuit” through northern Ethiopia. If you travel by public transport, three days would be the ideal time to explore the region. You can rush through in two.
It makes the most sense to start your journey in either Mekele or Axum, and end it in the other. From either, you can hop on a plane or bus to most major cities in northern Ethiopia. I came from Mekele (after my amazing Danakil Depression trip) and finished in Axum.
Minibuses are the only form of transportation in the easternmost parts of Tigray. They’re generally safe, not overcrowded by Africa standards (maybe 20 people in a 15-person minivan), and efficient.
On the other hand, the bus journey between Adigrat and Axum may win the award for the single most nightmarish overland journey I’ve ever experienced. You know it’s going to be bad when they hand out barf bags as you’re getting on the bus. The trip zig-zags through the Tigray escarpments and plateaus, often narrowly avoiding careening off the edge. Unfortunately there’s really no way to avoid this journey if you’re traveling in Tigray. And don’t worry — Axum is worth the trip (post coming soon).
Are the Tigray churches worth it?
Difficult to reach, expensive, and remote … there are definitely challenges to exploring this part of Ethiopia. And when you see your first Tigray church, you may wonder, ‘really? this is what the fuss is about?’ They aren’t Lalibela, that’s for sure.
Nevertheless, for me, this was one of the most rewarding segments of my Ethiopia journey. The churches, and the region as a whole, are remarkably frozen in time — even by Ethiopian standards. If you want to get a sense of what life was like in Biblical times, you can’t get any closer than this.
What’s more, I really enjoyed being way off the beaten path in Ethiopia. During the three days I spent in Tigray, I didn’t encounter a single other faranji tourist — just the owner of Gheralta Lodge (who is Italian) and a couple from Djibouti. I was constantly at the center of attention, and it was never unfriendly. I personally didn’t experience any of the hassle other travelers complain about. Nothing but smiles, calls of “hello” from every doorway, and new friends.
So yes, you’ll set out for this part of Ethiopia to see the Tigray churches. But it’s the people that will make you want to stay. Isn’t that what travel is really about?
What’s the most off-the-beaten-path place you’ve ever been? Would you venture to the Tigray churches? Leave a comment!
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