Abuna Yemata Guh: 600-Year-Old Ethiopian Orthodox Paintings in the World’s Most Dangerous Church

In the mountains of the Tigray region in Ethiopia is a rock-hewn church which is believed to be from the 5th Century. Inside the church are vibrant, seemingly new paintings that are in fact 600 years old. Would you risk your life to witness such a spectacular site?

In this series, we will take you to one of the oldest Christian countries in the world – Ethiopia, to look at how Christianity reached the country and to bring you to a few of the most famous rock-hewn Ethiopian Orthodox churches. This time, we will visit the church which is considered one of the most dangerous ones in existence.

View from mid-way to the top

The church is located in between the mountains

Abuna Yemata Guh is one of the 35 rock-hewn churches in Ethiopia, carved entirely out of one single stone. To reach the church located in northern Ethiopia, you must embark on a journey of at least 3 hours.

First, a car ride of no less than 2 hours (depending on your previous location) from either your hotel in the town or the previous church you visited in the region. Then, a 45-minute hike up the 2,580m mountain. This hike is the real challenge of the journey.

To avoid slipping off the mountain edges, you must take your shoes and socks off before the hike. The first challenge is to walk along numerous narrow, cliff-hugging ledges. Following that is the toughest part of the climb – a climb up a vertical rock wall with a 300m sheer drop. If you’ve made it this far, take the time to catch your breath first before crossing a natural stone bridge with a drop of approximately 250m on either side. Reaching the destination does not mean the thrilling yet nerve-wracking journey ends – you still have to descend the mountain using your bare feet again.

Climbing up the vertical rock wall

The dangerous route to Abuna Yemata Guh, however, is considered by locals just a normal journey to the church. The fear of falling off a cliff does not seem to concern priests who are in their 80s going for service, or mothers carrying their newborns to be baptised. In fact, this risky journey will lead you to one of the most well-preserved churches with paintings executed with only natural colours, a site that is worth the ‘risk’ to many religious art lovers.

Climbing up the vertical rock wall

Fortunately, there are priests and locals who are ‘stationed’ there to help those who are going to ascend the mountain. By tipping each of them around 100 Birr (US$4), they will guide you through the slippery rocks and push you upwards when you lack the strength, or the length in your legs. They will also point out the ‘natural’ indents in the wall where you can put your hands and feet in, as coaches would do in rock climbing lessons. You can also choose to borrow a climbing rope at the town nearby beforehand from tour guides for around 500 Birr (US$18 - 20) to be extra safe.

A breathtaking view from the entrance of the church, but make sure your feet are bare to not slip off the cliffs

The church was named after Father Yemata, a priest who is believed to had carved the church out of the cliff face in the 5th century. It is dedicated to Abuna Yemata (also referred to as Abba Yem'ata), one of the Nine Saints of the Ethiopian Orthodox church. The Nine Saints were a group of missionaries who were important to the initial growth of Christianity in Ethiopia during the late 5th century. We will get into this story in our next article.

Part of the church paintings is still in the dark when the church door first opens

Some speculates that Father Yemata chose such an inaccessible location to build the church because the journey mimics the way to heaven, the way to find true divinity. Others think that Father Yemata wanted to find a secret place for worship. Yet, how did the Father finish such a demanding job over 1500 years ago without the help of machines and modern tools? Perhaps this will remain forever a mystery.

Part of the church paintings is still in the dark when the church door first opens

After the church was built, however, its walls and ceiling had remained bare until almost 1000 years later. How did one discover the church after 1000 years? Who are the anonymous artist or even artists behind these pictures? Locals? Priests? Even experts have yet to find a definite answer.

The frescoes featuring nine of the twelve apostles of Jesus

These paintings date back to the 15th century and were painted solely with natural colours derived from flowers, minerals and fruits. Due to the challenging climb up, not many visitors choose to or are able to visit the church, thus allowing the paintings to be so well-preserved. Another reason for it is that the church is completely dark when the wooden front door is shut. The paintings therefore are less likely to be damaged by sunlight. Only when the door is opened will sunlight slowly diffuse into the church.

The Virgin Mary and Jesus

The most eye-catching part of the drawings on the church walls is the frescoes featuring nine of the twelve apostles of Christ. The intricate lines and details on their clothing and faces as well as the vibrant colours suggest how the church looks as if it was built a few years ago. 

In the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, those who are holy and good must have their whole face on show. In other words, all facial features must be seen, including both of their eyes. However, those who are evil, namely sinners and people who condemn God, are always shown in a profile with only one eye visible. This style of representation in Ethiopian Orthodox icons makes it easy to distinguish the evil and the good.

The evil

The good                                       

In the next article of our Ethiopian series, we will look at the story of how Christianity came into the country, as well as more ancient Ethiopian religious art. Please stay tuned.