After the Debre Damo adventure we deserved lunch: remarkably good roasted lamb, in the border town of Adigrat, some 20 km from the Eritrean border. Well, border town, in fact the border has been closed for quite some time now, since the Ethiopian-Eritrean war of 1998-2000. I suspect if any smuggling is going on, it will be going from Ethiopia towards Eritrea, not the other way round.
South of Adigrat is the small town of Freweyni, which apparently means wine fruit. Right! Certainly no grapes here, the country side is bone-dry, not a drop of water to be seen. Still, there is plenty a cattle and sheep and goats being walked by small boys with big sticks, so however unbelievable it looks, somehow they must still find something to eat and drink. But no grapes, for sure.
We were now entering the area of the Tigrean rock-hewn churches. Tigray is name of the area, and province, bordering Eritrea, and is also the historical heartland of Ethiopia, until perhaps the 17th Century, when subsequent capitals were moved ever further southwards.
There are some 120 rock churches documented here, but there may well be many more. The first of these became known to Westerners, or indeed anybody outside Ethiopia, only in the 1960’s, so hermetically closed had Ethiopia been. Fifty years later, some of these are well established on the tourist circuit – but many remain elusive, far away in the mountains, difficult to locate and even more difficult to reach, built as they have been high up in the steep sandstone cliffs. (Indeed, I forgot to mention that since Lalibela we have left most of the basalt behind us, and moved into thick sedimentary sequences, including a few massive sandstones; the entire Yeha temple is built out of fine-grained sandstone blocks.)
I was a little concerned that these churches would, after a while, be very similar to the previous ones, so we had carefully selected just a few of the more accessible ones, starting with what is known as the Teka Tesfai cluster, three churches relatively close together. We had anticipated a 2-3 hour walk to cover them all, including some steep climbs to the individual churches, but it turned out that we could come pretty close to each of them by car, leaving only the steep climbs. In a way disappointing, we had looked forward to the walk – and time-wise, due to the rather poor road, we would probably have taken about as much time walking as by car. On the other hand, walking we would have been accompanied by all the children of the area, pestering us continuously for pens and money. It is really incredible, the universal begging culture in this country, as soon as a foreigner appears – I may be repeating myself, but the begging, the “give me money”, “give me pen”, is so pervasive during this trip, that it is bound to come up a few more times.
Anyhow, the churches. Access to the first one, the Petros and Paulos church, has been improved significantly with the construction of a rickety wooden staircase, so that we don’t have to clamber over the steep rock-face anymore. Only part of this church is hewn into the rocks, but the setting is impressive enough, and provides super-views; besides, this is one of the few churches that has been decorated with beautiful frescos – definitely worthwhile the effort.
The other two churches are equally impressive, more built inside the rocks. The church of Mikel Melehayzenghi sports a high, domed ceiling, and the church of Medhane Alem has one of the prettiest exteriors I have seen amongst the churches, with four carved pillars and a decorated front entrance. As so often in Ethiopia, timing is difficult, as is distinguishing between legend and factual history, but perhaps 10th or 11th Century seems currently the best academic guess.
As enchanting as the churches is the country side. All over the land concentrated farm complexes have been built, groups of buildings – a house, a barn, a pen for the animals at night, hay stacks, and all protected by an often circular wall. Very attractive, very picturesque. Cattle is often found in the vicinity, cows with impressive long horns. Each complex is surrounded by cactuses, roads and paths are also lined with them, and with aloes. In this time of the year they are blooming, bright red or orange; the cactuses also have small yellow flowers on the tops of the large green leaves. At least a little colour in this forbidding, but beautiful dry landscape.