Trip Report: Rock-Hewn Churches of Ethiopia’s Tigray Region

Remote, ancient, and breathtaking, the over 200 rock-hewn churches of the Tigray region of Ethiopia were built in high, remote places to protect against attackers. Carved from cliff faces high atop seemingly inaccessible mountain perches, these simple yet stunning churches are the oldest in Ethiopia, some dating back to the 5th Century. And although many of the churches are relatively easily accessible, some can only be reached after long hikes and climbing up difficult terrain. Some churches even require climbing up cliffs using ropes or rock-climbing! But the rewards are worth the risk and effort: ancient architecture and intricate designs carved by hand from sandstone, beautiful high mountain scenery, and cooperative traditionally-garbed priests are just a few of the highlights of these little-known photo gems of Ethiopia.

Some of Ethiopia’s rock-hewn churches are perched precariously atop high cliffs, surrounded by stunning mountain scenery and vertigo-inducing drops of several hundred feet! Abuna Yemata Guh Church, Ethiopia. Canon 5DIV, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/125 second.

The churches of Tigray are known as “semi-monolithic”: usually carved from pre-existing caves, the interior of the churches are cut out of rock, with the outer facings constructed with masoned rocks. The might not look like much from the outside, but once you enter, you step into another world. Many of the best-known churches are found in the Gheralta area, with others found in Taka Tesfay, Atsbi, Tembien, and Wukro.

The interiors of the churches are decorated with intricate carvings, paintings, and colorful wall hangings. Mikael Melehayzenghi Church, Ethiopia. Canon 5DIV, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 500, f/4, 1/30 second.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church dates to the Fourth Century and has its own rich and unique Christian heritage. These are places of worship, so for the most part, it is expected that you will take off your shoes and hat before entering each church. A few of the monasteries are only accessible to men.

The monastery of Debre Damo requires a 60-foot climb up a rope and a Y chromosome—sorry ladies! Canon 5DIV, Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 10,000, f/5, 1/30 second.

The interiors of the churches can be quite dark, so be prepared to use large apertures and high ISOs when shooting inside using natural light. A lens with image stabilization is useful if hand-holding.

I hiked up to one church in the dark before sunrise, allowing me an opportunity to photograph the priests reading their bibles by candlelight. I was very happy that I had brought my f/1.4 prime with me! Canon 5DIV, Sigma 24mm f/1.4 lens, ISO 2000, f/1.4, 1/60 second.

Although the churches themselves are interesting, photographically speaking I was more drawn to the priests, who are often quite willing to pose for photographers, especially if given a small “donation” for their time and effort. The revenue coming in from tourist visits helps to protect these ancient sites, so consider it money well spent!

This friendly priest was happy to pose exactly where I wanted him, but my favorite photo was taken while he was relaxing between posing sessions as the sun set behind him. Abuna Yemata Guh Church, Ethiopia. Canon 5DIV, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 200, f/8, 1/40 second.

I preferred to work with the natural light, making photos of the priests standing in the shadows looking out against the relatively brighter light coming in through windows and doors. Exposure and composition in such situations can often be tricky: I would ensure that important parts of the scene—and my subject’s face—were in the light, and I would exposure for the highlights, letting the shadows fall into inky and mysterious darkness.

A priest poses near the open door of his small church. Canon 5DIV, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/4, 1/30 second.

The rock-hewn churches of Tigray are ready to be discovered by adventurous photographers. Certainly, visit the most famous, but also don’t be afraid to get off the beaten tourist track and find one of many hidden gems waiting to be explored. You’ll need a guide to explore the churches of Tigray; I used Simien Mountains Trekking and Tours for my travels within Ethiopia including the Tigray region.

To read more about Ian’s Ethiopia trip, see:

Trip Report: Rock-Hewn Churches of Ethiopia’s Tigray Region
Trip Report: Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia
Trip Report: Danakil Depression, Ethiopia
Trip Report: Ethiopia’s Sof Omar Caves

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About the author: World-renowned professional photographer and Tamron Image Master Ian Plant is a frequent contributor to a number of leading photo magazines (including Outdoor Photographer, Popular Photography, Landscape Photography, and others). You can see more of his work at www.ianplant.com.

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