A convenient, if simple base for visiting some of the most extraordinary rock-hewn churches of the Tigray region.
Wukro, a nondescript village in heart of the Tigray area, is only of interest as a base for visiting the extraordinary rock-hewn churches of the region. Problem is accommodation. We arrived in Wukro at dusk. The best hotel in town (10 US$ a night) had one single room available, and one double that stank badly. The building looked like a prison, three stories high with rooms exiting on a veranda around a narrow concrete courtyard. Every noise echoed upwards. Our second choice hotel was being renovated, but luckily we spotted a brand new – in fact, the second floor hadn’t been finished yet – and spotless clean small family hotel. Only limitation was that the hotel had no running water. Nobody had running water in Wukro, because of water shortage.
The area west of Wukro is called Geraltha, where another concentration of rock-hewn churches is located. In fact we only went to see one of them, the Abreha we Atsbeha church, possibly the oldest church in Tigray, if the legend that it was founded by the twin kings Abreha and Atsbeha in the 4th Century is true; although scholars think the 10th Century is more likely – you see, this is the problem with Ethiopian history, nobody knows for sure, and discrepancies are not only common, but also huge. To give you an idea, the church is some 16×13 m large, 6 m high, and has been cut out of the rock in cruciform, with a fabulously carved roof supported by 13 pillars. But you really have to come and see this for yourself, no description does justice to the real thing.
There are many other churches in the Geraltha area, hewn out the spectacular cliffs visible from the road (and, incidentally, a very nice lodge of the same name). We ended up in the small village of Megab, where we had coffee in the village coffee-house. No espresso machine here, but just a small frying pan to roast beans, and then prepare the coffee on a wood fire stove.
After lunch we headed south-east to try to find Mikael Imba, another of the Tigray churches. Even without a church at the end, this would have been a fabulous trip. The road first follows a broad river valley, in between towering cliffs, to a small village. Every conceivable part of the valley, and of the slopes, has been terraced. Thanks to the river, which does contain some water so here and there, irrigation is an option, and the agriculture here look a lot more successful than we have seen so far. Past the village the road begins to climb, and after every hairpin bend the view becomes more impressive. The church itself is reached by a short climb topped by a wooden ladder to the plateau – the amba – where it is located. Again, a totally different type of church, three-quarters hewn out of the rock with a beautiful façade.
One of the problems with these churches is that the priests insist that you take of your shoes, sometimes not just in front of the church, but way back. A pretty useless exercise, I think, because we are subsequently made to walk on our socks through sand and dust, and then through the pigeon shit around the church, before we enter the church on these same socks. The floors of the churches are often covered with carpets, paradise for fleas – but not as much paradise as our socks, which somehow seem an even more attractive place for the fleas than the church carpets. Hardship travel, I told you.
Wukro itself is not very exciting. It is just one very long street, sort of Wild West town built along the main road. The local rock-hewn church, Wukro Chirkos just outside town, isn’t very impressive, nothing compared to the others we have seen. But the stadium, this is something special indeed. No grass on the pitch, and no nets in the goals, but the stands are reminiscent of a Roman amphitheatre!