One of the fun parts of living in Ethiopia is that we get to celebrate many holidays in double. The Ethiopian calendar is eight years behind the Gregorian calendar and some holidays still respect the Orthodox calendar dates for holidays like Christmas and Easter. Genna, or Christmas, in Ethiopia and many other countries with Orthodox Christian followers, takes place on January 7th. I was curious to see what celebrations were like in Tigrai, one of Ethiopia’s northernmost provinces, where dozens of rock hewn churches dotted the landscape among towering sandstone cliffs of the Gheralta Mountain Range. With active and cultural activities to partake in, our 3-day weekend was jam-packed, but still managed to provide a restful vacation away from the city and the more popular celebrations in Lalibela.
The weekend was even more special since my best friend from high school who I had not seen in about 12 years was visiting us for the week from her current home of Ft. McMurray in Northern Canada! It was amazing being able to adventure together and discover a new area of this beautiful country together.
Groceries in Mekele
A short and early morning flight brought us to Mekele, the capital city of Tigrai on Christmas Eve. It seemed that everyone was busy preparing for the celebrations with groceries being bought and lots of men selling chickens on the street. The more religious people had been fasting, which in Ethiopia means to eat vegan food, for the past month. Many people also abstain from all food and drink for 24 hours before Christmas. There’s a big demand for chickens as wives and mothers are busy preparing the famous ‘doro wot’, spicy chicken stew that is eaten during celebrations. A driver picked us from Mekele and we were off on the 2-hr drive to Gheralta Lodge in Hawzien.
The Gheralta Lodge in Hawzien is perched on a beautiful ledge overlooking a valley with the Gheralta Range rising in the distance. The grounds are lovely and we found a family of rock hyrax and some gorgeous birds in the trees. While checking out sunset, a little girl from the adjacent property came to share some cactus fruit with us.
The Lodge’s property is worth exploring. Get up and take a walk during the golden hour and you will be rewarded with a beautiful sunset almost everyday.
Attending All-Night Mass
Since it was Christmas Eve, I was very curious about attending mass in the local church. The midnight masses I had been part of for other religious festivals were very colourful affairs. However, since it was a very small church, the ceremony was quite subdued with lots of prayers of devotion and none of the pomp and circumstance of other occasions.
I sat on the floor with a dozen women around me, many prostrating on the floor. Some were wrapped up in their blankets and had fallen asleep sitting up or leaned up against the wall chanting prayers. Just attending this night-time mass is a serious sign of devotion. We were the only tourists in attendance and it was very special for me to be able to sit and witness this ceremony inside an 11th century church carved out of the rock! Ceremonies like this have changed little since the start of Christianity and it often feels like you have stepped back into time (well… except the electrical lights).
Climbing as an Act of Faith
The next two days, we started early and went up and up! The first day, getting up to the 5th century church of Abuna Yemeta involved getting up a steep cliff that was about 100m off the bottom and we scrambled up a cliff face, choosing to go without a harness although the option was available. It was a little harrowing but with excellent help from the local guides and well-worn little holds for feet and hands, most people with some level of strength should be able to accomplish it. For obvious reasons, this climb should not be attempting if you suffer from vertigo. Sadly a lady right before us was rocking back and forth and the base of the first cliff because she was terrified of the steep drop off below. The church itself requires another walk along some tiny footpaths. It is decorated with original paintings unlike many of the other churches. Given it’s remote and challenging location, the paintings were not destroyed during invasions from Muslim tribes over the centuries.
On the second day, the climb was not quite as scary although we did go up much higher. The start of ascent was through pretty steep scramble in the middle of a giant crack between two mountains. Apparently some of the stone was brought over from Axum in the 10th century and the name of the church “korkor” is an hommage to the noise of the chisel on stone as they tried to make the rock into steps. The climb after this initial part was reasonably easy, although quite high up so breathing became a little difficult. The church of Daniel Korkor is a little cave on the side of the huge Gheralta Massif has amazing views over the plains below. We met a monk priest who had started living on the top of the mountain for the past 64 years, starting at age 12… A larger church, the biggest among the rock hewn churches in the Gheralta Range, named Mariam Korkor was also a great visit with huge stone pillars supporting the structure.
We saw some lammergeiers, also called bearded vultures flying almost at eye level although weren’t quick enough to get them on camera. These rare birds are very special because they survive by dropping bones from a height and eating the marrow inside. Their specialized diet and habitat degradation has made them endangered and it is a rare treat to see them so close. I would rate this as one of the best hikes in the country. Despite an initial challenging climb, I was able to complete it, even with a moderate level of physical capacity. I also enjoyed being able to look down on where we had climbed just the day before! It had seemed so high but this climb was almost twice higher.
Christmas Feast with a Farming Family
We were lucky to be invited to celebrate Christmas with a local family that lives at the base of the Abuna Yemeta church. The father sometimes serves as a scout to help tourists climb the mountain. The meal was delicious and involved some freshly made injera and ‘key wot’ or meat stew, a coffee ceremony and local brew called, ‘tella’. The key wot was interesting as it had ground meat and boiled eggs, a variant that I had not tasted before. I always love getting to know local families and spending a few hours talking with the mother and daughter pair here made me feel like I was right at home.
An amazing weekend getaway in Tigrai, although it left us wanting more adventures and made me much more confident about my climbing abilities. More than that, it was a great way to spend a Christmas close to what it might have been for hundreds of years. The spirit of this special holiday really shone through.
How to Get There: Ethiopian Airlines flies twice daily from Addis Ababa (ADD) to Mekele (MQX)
Where to Stay: The Gheralta Lodge is the most recommended accommodation in the region. However, other options do exist in Hawzien. The Lodge’s driver can also arrange pick-up in Mekele and provide transportation for the churches.
Climbing the Churches: A mandatory guide (450ETB/day) can be picked up on the way and you can decide on an itinerary and which churches to visit. You will also have to pay for a scout and church entrance fees (tips are expected). If you want to use a harness, that is also provided at 150ETB.