Abuna Yemata Guh is not like any other church in the world. This rock-hewn sanctuary stands 250 meters above ground and in order to reach it, you are required to climb up and face death.
“There is no other place in the world where you can get closer to God”, these are the words most Ethiopians use when they talk about Abuna Yemata Guh, a rock-hewn church located in Northern Ethiopia. Unlike any of the other 34 rock-hewn churches in the country, Abuna Yemata Guh is a little bit different. It is situated within a cliff face 250 meters above the ground and halfway up a sheer rock pinnacle. Furthermore, in order to get there, pilgrims have to climb up the steep rock – all without so much as a rope.
Ethiopia’s deep connection with God
As one of the world’s first advocates of Christianity, religion plays a big role in Ethiopians life. Most of the population of the country considers themselves religious in some form and with almost 50% of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, exploring some of the Orthodox churches in Ethiopia is big part of learning about Ethiopian culture and heritage.
I’ve been to Ethiopia a couple of times in the past years and each time I go there, I feel the necessity of learning more about Ethiopia’s sentiment for religion. I have visited several churches in the country, including the monolithic church in Lalibela, which is part of the UNESCO World Heritage List, and even participated in some of their sublime ceremonies.
Even though Ethiopia is not known for being a destination for religious pilgrimage, I felt here a deeper connection to God than in other religious places around the world like Vatican City or the Western Wall.
Climbing as an act of faith
Out of all the churches, temples and sanctuaries from all different religions in dozens of different countries I visited in the past decade, there is nothing like Abuna Yemata Guh.
According to a local legend, nine monks from Byzantium arrived in northern Ethiopia back in the 5th century. After they settled in the region and indoctrinated the population into Orthodox Christianity, they developed the skills of excavating monolithic churches. One of these monks, Abuna Yemata, started the task of constructing a church so high, that it will get closer to God. He excavated what today is Abuna Yemata Guh and despite the difficult task of free climbing 250m high in order to get there, he worshiped here each Sunday and held his service.
Today, 6th century paintings on the walls and the basic structure of the church are in excellent conditions. Furthermore, a local Orthodox priest is continuing the tradition of holding ceremonies here and has been climbing Abuna Yemata Guh every day for the past 50 years.
Locals from all over Ethiopia come here to pray, Abuna Yemata Guh is very popular for baptisms and special pilgrimages. Devotes come here to experience a ceremony that can only start after facing death.
According to the Washington Post, no person has ever died while trying to accomplish this very difficult task. “The route is blessed – God is watching for us” is what the people living around this sacred location said.
Any person can visit Abuna Yemata Guh. The church is open to the public for anyone ready to take that leap of faith and climb all the way up. However, climbing upwards is not easy under the heavy Ethiopian sun and without proper equipment.
At some sections, locals even recommend to leave the shoes down in order to get more grip and feel more comfortable with the rock.
Locals are making this visit a little bit more accessible for foreigners in the past years, as unofficial guides help travelers for 20-30 USD to go all the way up. They even carry ropes for the difficult parts of the route.
Climbing Abuna Yemata Guh is not about the views or the adrenaline itself. It is about a better understanding Ethiopians love for God and experiencing one of the most incredible pilgrimages on Earth.
Want to see more about Abuna Yemata Guh?
Check out one of my favorite videos about this magical place: