Hiking the churches and monasteries in the Tigray region
Tigray Region is the northernmost of the nine regions of Ethiopia, a vast barren flatlands broken by clusters of towering sandstone cliffs, well known for the beautiful churches that dot the area, some of which dating back over 1500 years go. The Tigray churches differ from Lalibela churches as they are carved from cliff faces, built into pre-existing caves, or constructed high atop some incredible perch. Many of them are not easy to get to as you need to hike, and in some cases even climb. There are over 100 marked-out churches within the Tigray region and the perfect base to explore the area is the small town of Wukro or the dusty and tiny Hawzien. Tigray is also perfect for hiking lovers, a marvellous destination that offers iconic landscapes plenty of hiking opportunities along its plateaus.
When to go
The best period to visit the Tigray region is during the dry months, from October to march. December and January are perfect, with mild temperatures and a clear sky. January is also a perfect month as you can also experience two of the biggest celebrations for the orthodox church, the Ethiopian Christmas and Timkat. Avoid the months from June to September as the rain could spoil your excursions.
The churches and monasteries of the Tigray region
First of all, we have to tell that the best way to fully enjoy the Tigray churches is by taking a local guide with the help of your accommodation, or better, through the Tigray Tourist Commission office in Wukro, where you can get a map and useful information. It’s extremely hard to visit the Tigray churches without a guide because the paths are not signposted and they require some hiking to access them. The guide is also very important to suggest and plan the best itineraries in case you are not that fit or you have mobility issues. Plus, some of the churches allow entrance only to men.
The Tigray churches are divided into 5 main clusters – Gheralta, Takatisfi, Wukro, Atsbi, and Tembien – and the most popular one is Gheralta that boasts over 30 churches.
The Gheralta Mountains hide the oldest churches and monasteries of Ethiopia, dating back to the 5th/6th century AD, some of which are difficult to reach as they are perched on the steep stone walls. Thanks to their difficult-to-reach locations, these churches are well-preserved and boast amazing mural paintings. The 3 most famous and impressive churches of the Gheralta cluster are Abuna Yemata Guh, carved into the top of a sandstone pinnacle and reachable by walk for an hour and then climb a steep 300 metres free-standing rock, Maryam Korkor, and Daniel Korkor. Despite all their charm, they are also the most difficult to reach as you have to climb the rock and feature some dangerous parts along the path.
In general, the easiest churches to visit are Abuna Tekla Haymanot, Maryam Berakit, Maryam Papaseit, Degum Salassie.
Where to sleep
The perfect base to visit the Tigray churches is the small towns of Wukro and Hawzien. It’s always better to book in advance as they don’t offer a wide range of accommodations. The best accommodation in the area is the Gheralta Lodge in Hawzien where it’s also possible to arrange your daily churches tour. We slept in Wukro at Serdo Hotel.
We would never think of travelling without proper coverage because the medical expenses could be very high. We always recommend travel insurance from World Nomads that we’ve used during our time in Ethiopia and throughout Africa. The northern circuit, especially the Tigray region, includes many hiking activities, and it’s always advisable to have travel insurance. Avoid drinking local tap water and make sure food is cooked thoroughly before eating. It is highly recommended to consult a travel medicine specialist to assess travel-related risks and have information to ensure your health and safety.