Ethiopian Churches and Religion (Ethiopia)

Completely fascinated with the Ethiopian culture, as I dug deeper the more religion and it´s respective churches called out to me. Some of the oldest churches in the world are found in Ethiopia, they are mainly Ethiopian Orthodox churches and their locations, colors, traditions and ceremonies hit a cord deep within me.

The last church I went to, up in the Tigray region, really captivated me. I was already fascinated by the churches I had seen prior so I made an effort to get to a few more of the off-the-beaten path churches which are known for their interior artwork and carved directly from the rock. To get there I took the most local bus (from Wukro) available in Ethiopia where you are jam packed inside with people and things often on top of you, if lucky you got a seat, if not, take whatever edge or rail you can squeeze onto for the bumpy, winding road ahead. The adventure to arrive was beyond fun but thankfully short lived…Since most tourists arrive in private car on tour no one was expecting me. I arrived, walked up to the church and a mass was happening…I decided to join, since I´d gone to plenty of Orthodox (Eastern) masses as a teen…I was thoroughly interested in joining. It was a process to join but those at this mass were very accepting. Unlike one I tried to enter at a different church earlier in my trip. I entered and joined the women´s side (right) hiding myself in the back and covering my head with the traditional white scarfs (be mindful: shoes need to be removed to enter churches). As mass went on I payed attention to behaviors, the beautiful artwork, details within the main room and attempted to follow along. I went from standing to kneeling, just following what the other ladies in front of me did. At some point one lady handed me a staff, I had no clue what to do…I simply placed the end of it on the floor and did as I´d seen others do…rest their chin on it. As soon as I did this I could feel an energy coming from the ground to me, the sensation was unreal. It made me feel very calm. I felt I was accepted, finally welcome and as though I understood them. After so many things having gone wrong I finally felt at peace (which got me teary eyed)…well at least for that instance with the magical spiritual staff. 😉 Turns out the staff is actually what they call a prayer crutch…for leaning on when your tired…lol

Everyone moved to the entry area (chanting room) the men picked up instruments (drums and rattles) and played some soft beats while chanting. This was followed by some more praying then everyone dispersed through the side doors as mass ended. I stayed to admire the staff once again, the art and take photos of the amazing artwork. It was here that a guide and his group showed up. The murals here literally depicted the whole story in the Bible very clearly on the entry walls. Incredible! There are tons of these rock-hewn churches in Tigray area but the only one I could manage as extra was Abreha We Atsbeha given the time I had and knowing it is one of the most accessible ones. Glad I went as this beautiful church provided (by far) one of my favorite experiences in all of Ethiopia.

Many have heard of Lalibela and the stone churches carved from the ground out. It´s one of the top destinations in Ethiopia. I knew of them once I saw a photo and planned to head that way at sometime. But once I found out that Christmas (January 7th) was coming and that Lalibela was the main pilgrimage location to celebrate I rushed over. Most have this a bit more planned out while I was flexible and hopeful. It all worked out and it was an incredible time to be present in Lalibela (even if dates got messed up due to a leap year and I got my bag slashed, ha). So many Ethiopians made the pilgrimage for the holiday, some walking months to attend. Most stay right on the church grounds themselves as one guy I met on public transit was planning to do. Everyday during Genna (aka Christmas) there is a ceremony going on in each of the 11 churches carved out of the ground at this site. I saw a few ceremonies here and there as I formed a group and did a guided tour of the churches. Mind you this was quite intense since the red rock passage ways were tiny and crammed full of people coming and going from mass, prayers, ceremonies and of course also visiting for their first time these incredible 800 year old very spiritual churches in the ground. I am surprised we were even allowed to tour but hey what is a few more hundred tourists, right? If you loathe crowds, avoid Lalibela during this holiday.

Since the churches were carved from the stone instead of built, the focus was mainly exterior while the insides were left genuinely simple, except in Biete Mariam and Biete Ghiorgis, where you see some designs and artwork. I visited almost all 11 churches over the few days there but only the most important ones and some ceremonies were done with our guide. We did the largest Biete Medhani Alem (2x), huge yet it was very crowded. Biete Mariam which had lovely intricate designs inside and plenty of frescos (sad my camera was full) – so pretty I didn´t want to leave but simply stare at the designs. This is the most sacred of the churches given it is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It is also here that Christmas is welcomed at midnight…I went for a bit but the ceremony lasts hours into the night…once most watching from above in the crowd seemed passed out I left. Biete Golgatha Mikael was also very sacred but is only for men to enter. They say King Lalibela, who had the churches carved out so Lalibela could become the new Jerusalem (when the Muslims took over actual Jerusalem), is entombed inside. Biete Ghiorgis (St. George) is unique in shape and they say is the most well preserved. It is the one you see in all the photos. To get there you pass through long open tunnels. Bet Abba Libanos was non descript inside but outside quite unique and actually the first we visited. Bet Golgotha may have been the only one I missed…and it looks nice from photos I´ve seen.

Furthermore, if this didn´t soothe your craving of impressive churches in Lalibela you could hike up the mountain (or take a bus) to the monastery. I hiked which wasn´t easy especially at high altitude but the views were amazing. The monastery wasn´t free and I didn´t want to pay so I just kept hiking around instead but know that it is there and many Ethiopians make their way up here to visit it.

One important religious place I actually missed was Aksum. I did so purposely because I wasn´t interested in going after hearing mixed reviews travelers told me and it was the very beginning of the trip when I learned of Christmas…and therefore headed South in the complete opposite direction of Aksum. Anyway, they say it is here that the original Ark of Covenant resides (aka Ten Commandments) and where Queen of the Saba (Sheba) is from. Also seems important as the entry point of multiple religions to Africa.

I couldn´t miss a visit to the most daring of churches. Again carved out of stone but this time you had to hike up and literally rock climbing was needed (in places) to reach some locations. These were the most breath taking and what sparked my further investigation as to where else I could go to see more of these outstanding constructions. Which in turn lead me to explore Tigray even more.

I made my way to the Gheralta Mountains and managed to visit two of the breathtaking churches on the top of peaks near Hawzen, Abuna Yemata Guh and Bet Daniel and Maryam Korkor. The most incredible one was by far the first one because it was the rock climbing one. Besides the effort to get there was the fact that we were at an altitude of 2580m (8,460 ft) and when you finally reached the top you were confronted by a sheer cliff drop off. If that didn´t get you, just walking the few feet from there to the entrance of this church might. Short and sweet you continued right along the edge of the cliff. I made sure to take my time before advancing because I was out of breath and at the same time had my breath taken away from the unbelievable views in front of me. In reality this area looked very similar to AZ or UT in the US but there is no experience equal to this back home! The Korkor churches we did on the same day after a stop in town for lunch. These two were easier to hike to but took longer to arrive and was for me the better hike because the views were astounding.

In general we did all of these walking from the closest Town of Megab, nothing on tour. It took longer but was doable if you started early…the hardest part was getting the right price for the local transit from Hawzen. Drivers here literally kicked passengers out so they could attempt to charge a whole car load to just us two tourists (fellow traveler and I)…ridiculous and stupid! Always ask prices to places from a local beforehand to avoid scheming.

Besides Christianity it is important to know that there is also Islam and some Jewish communities in the country. Christianity accounts for 63% followed by Islam at 34%. Christianity includes Ethiopian Orthodox (43%), Catholic (1%) and P´ent´ay (19%) or Protestant based. I dipped into the other two main religions as well. Jewish only by meeting an Ethiopian Jew who was visiting from Israel who´s family had fled the country. There were several Israeli military operations held between 1984-1991 to bring Ethiopian Jews to the homeland. Interesting factoid from one operation is that a record 1087 passengers were sent on a Boeing 747 airplane. More about Jews in Ethiopia (Operation Solomon)

For a look at the Islamic side I took a trip to the corner where Islam is ever present…in Harar, Harari. This time I took the ¨luxury¨ bus – Selam – from Meskel Square at 4 am (10 hour journey) and flew back to Addis from Dire Dawa to save some time. Along the way you pass many tribal villages and a beautiful mountain range. Harar was a unique place to visit as it´s old town is basically a citadel that is enclosed with 5 entry gates. Inside are colorful homes and a maze of tiny streets on a hillside. Just outside the walls is a huge market worth a wander. I spent most of my time wandering around and taking in the picturesque old city, visiting museums, cool shrines and feeding a hyena…lol. My goal seemed to be to go down every street in the citadel…ha ha I even ran inside it…but there seriously are so many passage ways I don´t think I achieved this in my two days there….I did however take more photos than one needs to because it was all so cute and beautiful…especially some of the doors! A visit or stay at a traditional home is a must because it´s history and tradition beyond the style inside is just so unique. By the way Harar is apparently considered one of the holiest cities for Muslims.

Right before leaving Ethiopia I caught a bit of Timkat…another religious festival celebrated in January (19th). This time the main place to be was in Gondar…somewhere I´d already visited and you could say I was ok enjoying it in the small towns and in Addis after the large Christmas ones I´d done. Timkat is the celebration of Jesus´ baptism. Throughout the country, no matter where you are, you will witness processions that close the main streets, lots of umbrellas, priests, a carried ark of covenant (usually this is covered and hidden in churches), singing/chanting and people in attendance. In Gondar you have the same but the baptism takes place in a huge pool set behind a church…the water is blessed then sprinkled on attendees which symbolically the renewal of your baptismal vows. It is a 2 day thing so I witnessed it one day in a small town where I was attending a running camp and then later on in Addis…I never went where water was blessed but it seemed like everyone was out on the streets dressed up for it. I loved the colorful umbrellas, the unique rituals, the clothing worn by various priests and the groups of men who would gather and sing or chant before the procession of priests arrived.

You could almost say my trip was focused on religion while in Ethiopia when in reality I went for food, running and hiking…lol…I guess religion got tacked on.

Click below for more info:

More on religion in Ethiopia.

More on Harar

Lalibela church details

More on Aksum if you must

For Abreha we Atsbeha check here

More blogs on Ethiopia Running Camp or Hiking Simien or Ethiopia Overview

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