Tigrai and Aksum Travel Guide

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The most northerly of Ethiopia’s federal regions, Tigrai is also the most historic part of the country, having formed the core of the Aksumite Empire for several centuries either side of the birth of Christ. The region’s principal tourist destination today is the ancient capital, Aksum, a city of ruined palaces and gigantic obelisks that is steeped in shaggy dog traditions relating to the biblical King Solomon and mysterious Queen of Sheba. Tigrai is also home to many historic churches, from the clifftop monastery of Debre Damo to the hundred-odd rock-hewn edifices carved into the escarpments and outcrops around Wukro and Mekele. The region is named after the Tigraian people, who speak a unique Semitic language called Tigrinya, and are noted for their distinctive stone architecture and the dramatic traditional hairstyles and flowing dresses worn by the women.

Top image: Debre Damo Monastery © Chr. Offenberg/Shutterstock

Adigrat and around

The second-largest town in Tigrai, ADIGRAT stands at the junction of the surfaced roads west to Aksum, south to Mekele and north to the Eritrean capital, Asmara. The bustling market is well worth browsing for the traditional Tigraian cloth and other handicrafts on sale, while the interior of Adigrat Chirkos Church immediately behind is awash with nineteenth-century murals.

Debre Damo Monastery

The impregnable Debre Damo Monastery, 50km from Adigrat by road, can be reached only by the challenging ascent of a sheer 15m-high cliff using a leather rope steadied by a monk at the top. The monastery was founded in the sixth century by Abba Aregawi, who – legend has it – was transported there by a flying serpent. Refurbished in the 1950s, its Aksumite-style church, which stands about 8m tall and comprises alternating layers of wood and stone, is at least a thousand years old. Women aren’t permitted to visit and men may be questioned about their faith by the monks before they are allowed up the rope.

Adwa and around

The town of ADWA, 20km east of Aksum, is itself of limited interest, though its Church of Adwa Inda Selassie, constructed by Emperor Yohannis IV, is adorned with colourful nineteenth-century murals. In 1896, the craggy granite hills surrounding the town played host to the Battle of Adwa, wherein the imperial troops led by Menelik II defeated the invading Italian army, ensuring Ethiopia’s future as an independent state. Nearby, the must-see Yeha Temple is included as an excursion from Aksum on many tour itineraries, as (sometimes) is the historic Abba Garima Monastery.

Aksum

AKSUM (also spelt Axum) stands at the epicentre of Ethiopian history. In ancient times, it served as the economic hub of the Aksumite Empire, which lasted for some nine hundred years from the second to the tenth centuries, and capital of a ruling dynasty legendarily descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. It is also the cradle and spiritual home of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which was established here during the fourth-century reign of King Ezana. Somewhat more tenuous is the Ethiopian claim that the original biblical Ark of the Covenant is protected in Maryam Tsion, Aksum’s most venerable church.

Given this pedigree, dusty, low-rise Aksum can come across as surprisingly unimpressive on first contract. Indeed, while most dedicated students of Ethiopian history regard this oldest and holiest of towns as the most rewarding stop along the northern historic circuit, many casual visitors dismiss it as dull by comparison to Lalibela or Gondar. Nonetheless, Aksum is studded with some extraordinary antiquities, including the tallest stelae (obelisks) ever erected by the ancients, and engraved trilingual tablets dating to the time of Christ – all of which can be hugely rewarding when approached with realistic expectations.

Archeological sites aside, the modern-day town’s lively central market (next to the stadium) attracts hundreds of traditionally attired Tigraians from surrounding rural areas on Saturday, the main market day. In addition, the time really comes alive during Meskel, when the festivities climax in front of the main stelae field.

Main stelae field

Main stelae field

Aksum’s best-known archeological site is a field of 75 sandstone stelae, extending over around 5000 square metres at the northwest end of town. Here, a trio of massive engraved obelisks represent the largest single-block edifices ever constructed in ancient times. Local tradition and archeological evidence broadly concur that the stelae date to the third and fourth centuries AD and were erected to mark royal graves. The mechanism used to raise them, however, remains conjectural: local folklore attributes their erection to the mysterious powers of the Ark of the Covenant, while modern scholars favour the more prosaic explanation that they were dragged into place by domestic elephants.

The largest of the obelisks, Remhai’s stele – traditionally associated with the third-century king of the same name – now lies shattered in five horizontal blocks weighing 520 tonnes in all. Neatly engraved with twelve rows of carved windows and a carved door at the front, it would be over 33m tall were it still standing. Scholarly consensus is that Remhai’s stele collapsed in the process of being raised, but locals claim it stood in place for at least five centuries before being toppled by Queen Yodit during her sacking of Aksum.

The only giant stele to remain in place since it was erected is the 23-metre-tall Ezana’s stele, which has nine storeys of windows and a door at the base, and has been tilted slightly to the right for centuries. Alongside it is the world’s tallest standing ancient obelisk – the 25-metre high “Roman stele”, which was appropriated during the Italian occupation, chopped into three blocks, and reassembled in Rome. Following decades of heated negotiation, the looted obelisk was returned to Aksum and re-erected at its original site in 2005. Unfortunately, this procedure destabilized the base of Ezana’s stele, which is now supported by an unsightly sling supported by metal poles.

West of Aksum

The old road running west towards Shire Inda Selassie provides access to several worthwhile archeological sites, all within walking distance of town, assuming you’re reasonably fit.

Dungur

Dungur, on the north side of the road 1km west of the town centre, is a razed palace whose near still-evident floor plan indicates that it was among the largest built in the vicinity of Aksum, comprising fifty rooms. Local legend designates it to be the Queen of Sheba’s Palace, but the only excavations to date suggest it was built after the Aksumite elite converted to Christianity.

Gudit Stelae Field

Opposite Dungur, the so-called Gudit Stelae Field comprises hundreds of funereal stelae, most around human height. While the local name suggests a link with the notorious Queen Yodit and a contradictory popular tradition maintains that the tallest stele marks the Queen of Sheba’s grave, broad academic consensus is that this cemetery was contemporaneous with the main stelae field in town, and was reserved for elite citizens who were nonetheless too lowly ranked to warrant burial alongside the emperors and their families.

Ad Hankara and the Godebra Lioness

Some 4km out of town, past Dungur on the Shire Inda Selassie road, Ad Hankara is the hillside site where the main Aksumite stelae were quarried, as evidenced by the partially carved stele left in situ. A few minutes’ walk further uphill, the unique Gobedra Lioness comprises a 3.25m figure of a crouching lion carved in relief onto an upright boulder – created, according to local tradition, when an angry archangel forcefully repelled an attacking lion.

Mekele

The administrative capital of Tigrai, MEKELE is probably Ethiopia’s fastest-growing city, its present-day population of 250,000 representing a tenfold increase since the 1970s. The city’s initial rise to prominence dates to the reign of Emperor Yohannis IV (1871–89), who had ancestral roots in the surrounding countryside and built several churches there. More recently, Mekele has been accorded a comprehensive makeover under the post-Derg government, which is dominated by Tigraians. As a result, it now has an unusually neat, grid-like appearance, and while lacking in significant tourist attractions, it does form the main fly-in gateway to the rock-hewn churches of northeast Tigrai. It’s also a good base from which to visit the Danakil.

Mekele market

Situated a few blocks west of the city centre, Mekele market is renowned as the terminus of the Arhotai caravans that carry salt blocks on camel back from the Arho region of the Danakil. Monday is the main market day, though the caravans might arrive here at any time (the trip from Arho takes longer than a week).

Shire Inda Selassie

The gateway town to Tigrai, if you’re coming from Gondar and Debark, is SHIRE INDA SELASSIE. The town is of limited interest to travellers, but for those using public transport it is usually necessary to change vehicles there. Whether southbound you may also need to spend a night in town.

Tigrai’s rock-hewn churches

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.

Abreha we Atsbeha

Widely regarded as one of the finest rock-hewn churches in Tigrai, Abreha we Atsbeha is also one of the most accessible, situated practically alongside the road to the Gheralta escarpment only 17km northwest of Wukro. It has a massive cruciform interior, perhaps the largest of the region’s rock-cut churches, and an elaborately carved roof supported by thick pillars and decorated arches. The church is said to have been excavated by Ezana and Atsbeha; centuries later, it was attacked by Queen Yodit, who took ill immediately on entering, only to be swept to her death by a heavenly gale that landed her body on the outskirts of Wukro.

Exploring the Tigraian churches

There are no set opening hours for any of the churches, so in order to maximize your chances of gaining access to any given church, you should avoid visiting on local market days when the priest is likely to be out shopping and bear in mind that on mass days you may not be allowed to enter any church much after 10am. By contrast, most churches stay open longer than usual on holy days dedicated to the saint for which they are named. A knowledgeable local guide (a native Tigrinya-speaker, arranged through the tourist office in Wukro) will be invaluable when it comes to easing your way around.

Gheralta escarpment

Some thirty rock-hewn churches adorn the tall sandstone cliffs of Gheralta, which rise to 2580m above the rocky plains northwest of Wukro and south of Hawzien. The jewel of Gheralta is Abuna Yemata Guh, a small but exquisitely painted church carved into a lofty perpendicular sandstone pinnacle at the west end of the escarpment. Other important edifices include Abuna Abraham Debre Tsion, a large monastic church reputedly founded in the sixth century, and Yohannis Maikudi and Debre Maryam Korkor, both of which are decorated with fine seventeenth-century murals. Be aware that Gheralta can be quite physically demanding to explore: most of the individual churches are reached by long, steep footpaths, some of which (particularly Abuna Yemata Guh) entail arduous climbs up near-vertical faces that can be potentially dangerous, especially when wet.

Taka Tesfai

Easily explored in half a day on foot or by vehicle, the trio of churches known as Taka Tesfai lies to the east of the busy Adigrat road 16km north of Wukro. The most interesting church here is Adi Kasho Medhane Alem, a cathedral-like cliff excavation with an airy front cloister. Its coffered ceiling is particularly finely executed, and the tranquil and devout atmosphere reflects its status as one of the region’s most historic churches. Also worth visiting is Petros and Paulus Melehayzenghi, which comprises an abandoned cliff church with some lovely old line drawings of saints on the outer walls, plus a modern replacement. The least interesting of the trio, Mikael Melehayzenghi has a largely unadorned interior but is rather unusual in that it has been carved into a domed rock outcrop.

Wukro Chirkos

The most accessible of the region’s churches, Wukro Chirkos is located on the eastern outskirts of Wukro town. The church, said locally to have been excavated during the fourth-century rule of Ezana and Atsbeha, appears to be a three-quarter monolith but is actually excavated into a cliff. It has an unusually large interior, with a ceiling covered in faint diagrammatic line drawings (reputedly dating to the fifth century), though they are partially obscured by burn marks attributed to Ahmed Gragn.

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Andy Turner
10/16/2020
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