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(Architecture Series) Abu Yemata: The Church in the Sky

Written by Oadeye

THE START OF CHRISTIANITY IN AFRICA

Abu Yemata Guh is an ancient church located in Ethiopia, the only African country that was never colonised by the Europeans. The roots of the Ethiopian states date to as far back as the 10th century BC[1] with the rise of the D’mt Kingdom before the more popular Aksumite Kingdom that rose in the first century AD. It was during the reign of King Ezana in the 4th century AD that the Aksumite Kingdom which is present-day Ethiopia adopted the orthodox tradition of Christianity[2] and became one of the very few Christian nations on earth at the time.

Map showing the Gheralta mountains of Ethiopia (source)

By the seventh century AD, Christianity has been deeply entrenched in the kingdom. Their resolve to adhere to the religion was tested during the rise of Islam around the 7th century AD, despite being Economically Isolated[3], cut off from there Christian allies and their neighbors rapidly converting to Islam, they remained resolute. As a matter of fact, Christianity became a distinctive characteristic of the kingdom during those times, and it is evident today in the multitude of churches and monasteries that litter the Tigray region These churches originated between the 6th and 12th centuries AD according to historians, and are still active with barely any change in mode of worship. The Abu Yemata Guh is one of these churches.

THE NINE SAINTS

The Abu Yemata Guh church is hewn out from the side of one of the highest cliff spire in the Gheralta mountain area of Tigray, in Northern Ethiopia and dedicated to Abu Yemata one of the nine saints said to have migrated to Askum now present-day Ethiopia in the 6th century[4].

The Nine saints; Abba Aftse, Abba Alef, Abba Aragawi, Abba Garima , Abba Guba, Abba Liqanos, Abba Pantelewon, Abba Sehma, and Abba Yem’ata[5] were missionaries that came to Aksum and phenomenally contributed to the growth and entrenchment of orthodox Christianity in the region during the 6th century.

BOOK

They built many churches and founded many monastic houses many of which are named after them. Their origin is not really clear, but about two or three of the saints are believed to have come from Syria, the rest have been ascertained to have come from Constantinople, Anatolia and Rome[6]. They were deeply involved in the expansion of Christianity and the introduction of the monastic way of life. They translated many of the Christian scriptures into the local language; this ancient Aksumite language is still actively being used for worship in the Abu Yemata and other rock-hewn churches of that region even presently.

LOCATION, ACCESSIBILITY AND TOPOGRAPHY

What a church! Now when a church is widely touted to be the one of the most dangerous in the world, that is bound to raise your curiosity and brace you up for what lies ahead should you decide to pay a visit, but it is also one of the most glamorous. I know what you are thinking, but no, there are no bandits or armed thugs or horrific religious rituals, as a matter of fact, there is no human-induced danger, actually quite the contrary. The danger lies in its accessibility.

The church is situated high within a cliff pinnacle over 8000 feet above ground level in the Gheralta mountains of Tigray in Northeast Ethiopia. One estimate puts its height from the ground more precisely at 8,460 feet[7] Hence its nickname “The church in the sky”. It was built or more appropriately put carved out from a rock sometime in the 6th century AD, and was named after an Egyptian priest Abu Yemata whom it was dedicated to.

Getting to this church is quite laborious and no task for the faint hearted, But why situate a church at such altitude that is painstakingly difficult to access? no one really knows for sure, while some say he did it for the sense of being closer to God, for its serenity and tranquil nature, others argue it was to provide cover from raiders, soldiers and enemies of the church as such. The Abu Yemata Guh although unique is not the only rock-hewn church in Tigray, Ethiopia. The Gheralta mountains is home to the oldest rock-hewn churches of Tigray, which also not surprisingly are among the oldest surviving orthodox Christian churches in history. These churches were built sometime between the 4th and 6th century AD according to the local priests.

There are about 35 rock-hewn churches[8]and are divided into clusters; Teka Tesfa Cluster, Astibe cluster, Gheralta cluster and the Tembien cluster[9]. Getting to the entrance of the Abu Yemata Guh requires first of all crossing the plains surrounded by surreal rock formations, before getting to the foot of a cliff where the ascent begins. After about 2 kilometers of strenuous steep climbing and darting across ravines and valleys as you make your way up the cliff, you are met face to face with an almost 90 degrees vertical rock wall face with dents on its surface that serves as foot and handholds for the 19 feet vertical climb[10] and this is where it gets really extreme. Although the priests and locals pride themselves of never having anyone ever falling from the climb, visitors are advised to climb barefooted for better toe grip or maybe because of religious reasons. Also, there are always random guides available, their job strictly to make sure visitors make the climb successfully.

A tourist scaling the vertical cliff (source)

After scaling the 19 feet rock wall you are met with a rickety makeshift branch bridge which leads to a dangerously narrow cliff path about 50cm wide[11] that will have you hugging the sandstone wall, any misstep here will have you plummeting some 250 feet down to your demise. Along the route is an open-air tomb that houses the skeletal remains of priests and pilgrims, some locals even make the climb to bury their dead.

The dangerous narrow cliff path leads to a large heavy stone door which is the entrance of the Abu Yemata Guh Church. The church itself is a cave, a rock-hewn painted cave, but its splendor is definitely worth the climb. The interior of the church is marvelous. A typical Ethiopian orthodox church, it is divided into three sections; A section for music, A section for holy communion and a section that houses a replica of the ark of the covenant, every Orthodox church in Ethiopia has a replica of this ark. The ceiling is adorned with frescoes, that feature beautiful patterns, faces of nine of the apostles of Christ and other religious imageries, amazing murals glamorize the communion room depicting the lives of the nine saints, all the paintings are still in near perfect conditions. Art historians believe the paintings date to the 15th century but were well preserved. Because the church itself is carved from a rock it has only one entrance and no other side entrance, inside is dark but lit by candles.

There are many antique books used by the priests, a good number still in excellent conditions made from animal hide with beautiful drawings made with ink from flora and fauna. Some priests have not left the mountain top for 30 to 40 years; there are even monks that have lived for over 60 years in the mountains.

Despite the difficult dangerous ascent and descent church faithful frequently climb up the cliff for masses and baptisms. Locals believe the church is sacred and it is held in such high esteem that even pregnant women come to the church for blessings. Nursing mothers are not left out, they take the risk and make the perilous climb with their babies up the cliff to get them baptized, although a friend or relative usually assist them, also, some of the locals carry their dead up the mountains to be buried.

PAINTINGS

Historians believe the paintings in the Abu Yemata Guh was done sometime in the second half of the fifteenth century[12]drawing their conclusion from the styles, themes and iconography, thou the priests and locals suggests a much earlier date. The paintings are magnificent and quite striking, for first-timers upon entering the church, the splendor of the paintings and glamour of the church is a worthy reward for the strenuous ascent and can make you temporarily forget the awaiting task of descent.

The paintings are in a well-preserved state, thanks to the low humidity and lack of sunlight however, the lower part of the pictures have been much affected and faded due to frequent human contact especially worshippers. Figures from the Old Testament account for almost all of the characters drawn with just some few New Testament characters depicted. Paintings of characters like; The Apostles, The Nine saints, Christ, Mary, Abraham, Angels, Moses, Jacob are some of the figures that adorn almost the entire walls, cupolas and columns of the church[13]

CLOSING REMARKS

The Abu Yemata Guh Church is world-renowned, it is a popular tourist destination and has featured in many popular magazines, and Television Shows all around the world. The positive feedback from tourists and visitors to this church from all countries of the earth, suggests there is no doubt it’s an exciting place to be. One tourist recently said on TripAdvisor “The views from the church are stunning and the whole experience is very special. Definitely one of our Ethiopian highlights!! A MUST!! ” another said, “This is one of the most interesting places I’ve been in my life having had my fair share of globe-trotting”.

A visit to Ethiopia without experiencing the Abu Yemata Guh is really not complete somewhat; Sure there are other rock-hewn churches in Tigray, Ethiopia but none as unique and glamorous as the Abu Yemata Guh.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Paul B. Henze, Layers of Time: A History of Ethiopia (New York: Palgrave, 2000) p. 38.
  • The Rough Guide to Ethiopia (1 ed.). UK: Rough Guides. 2 Mar 2015. p. 160. ISBN 9780241181850.
  • Briggs, Philip (2002). Ethiopia (3rd ed.). Chalfont St. Peter: Bradt. p. 250. ISBN 978-1841620350.
  • Lepage C, Mercier J. The ancient churches of Tigrai. Paris: ADPF; 2005.
  • www.dailymail.co.uk
  • WWW.heritagesciencejournal.springeropen.com
  • WWW.ageshatours.com
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abuna_Yemata_Guh
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Ethiopia

REFERENCES

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Ethiopia
  2. https://magazine.africageographic.com/weekly/issue-195/ethiopia-living-churches-ancient-kingdom/
  3. Due to the Muslims gaining control over all of their trade routes
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abuna_Yemata_Guh
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nine_Saints#cite_note-1
  6. Paul B. Henze, 2000.
  7. The Rough Guide to Ethiopia (1 ed.). 2 Mar 2015.
  8. Briggs, Philip, 2002
  9. http://ageshatours.com/index.php/tour-packages/package-list/34-the-oldest-rock-hewn-churches-of-tigray
  10. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-2823326/Abuna-Yemata-Guh-church-sky-Ethiopia-world-s-inaccessible-place-worship.html
  11. https://heritagesciencejournal.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s40494-016-0101-6
  12. Lepage C, Mercier J. 2005.
  13. https://heritagesciencejournal.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s40494-016-0101-6

About the author

Oadeye

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