Ethiopia’s main concentration of rock-hewn churches – more than a hundred individual sanctuaries – lies in the northeastern part of Tigrai Region. Many of these are highly atmospheric, timeworn edifices whose compact candlelit interiors, often decorated with ancient ecclesiastic art, are soaked in spirituality. Tigrai’s rock-cut churches mostly predate those in Lalibela – oral tradition dates the oldest excavations to the fourth century, while academic opinion inclines more towards the tenth – yet all but a dozen remained unknown much beyond their immediate parishes until the 1960s.
Tigrai’s churches are more scattered than their counterparts in Lalibela, and many are located near the top of the sandstone cliffs and outcrops that characterize the region, making them very scenic but also hard to reach. This isolation also ensures that the churches tend to make fewer concessions to tourism: visitors are routinely turned away from one church or another because the priest with the key happens to be on walkabout, and are also often refused entry before, during or after a mass (depending on the local tradition). As such, a degree of flexibility and patience is a prerequisite for exploring the region, as is a little forward planning.
The springboard for exploring the area is the rather scruffy town of Wukro, which sprawls along the main road between Adigrat and Mekele. The most important cluster of churches lies 20–25km to the northwest of Wukro, near the smaller town of Hawzien, site of the superb Gheralta Lodge.