Tigray, Ethiopia’s northern most region, has more than 120 rock-hewn churches. It was in 1966 that Abba Josef Tewelde-Medhin astonished many Ethiopianists by reading out the list of the churches. Before then, however, only two or three churches were known to scholars.
The rock churches are found in Gheralta, Tsaeda Imba, Atsbidera, Haramat, Ganta Afeshum, and in many other places scattered unevenly over an area of 180x140kms. Ivy pearce, one of the noted academic authorities in the field, writes, “The Tigre rock-hewn churches are more interesting to visit on account of the fact that one can see antiquity in people, things, places and ceremonies unchanged for over a thousand years.” She also ranked them as “the greatest of the historical-cultural heritage of the Ethiopian people.”
North-west of Mekele, the capital of Tigrai, is the home of a quarter of the rock churches, some famous for their stone workmanship, ancient paintings and old manuscripts, and others known for their magnificent view and difficult ascent. Such great churches as Abune Yemata (Guh), Mariam Korkor, Debre Tsion (Abune Abraham), Yohannes Maequddi and Selassie Degum are in the very heart of Gheralta, making it the home of rock churches in Tigrai.
The scenery of Gheralta is spectacular. The view of the graceful Mount Gheralta and the far reaching Hawzien Plain is a rare combination of extraordinary beauty. Georg Gerster, the Swiss photographer, in his book Churches in Rock, writes “Gheralta with its ‘western film’ scenery of mountains seems to be a kind of Ethiopian Arizona, an Arizona, however, without motels or desperadoes. But, nevertheless, an Eldorado with the choice intellectual pleasure of constantly stimulating and satisfying the passion for discovery.”
Gheralta can now be approached either from the town of Wukro, 47 km north of Mekele along the highway or from Senkata (Freweini), and 83 km along the road. The important points in the area (Abraha –Atsbaha, Degum, Megab and Hawzien) are now all connected by road and inaccessibility seems a fast forgotten thing of the past.