In the Gheralta Mountains of the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia, inside a vertical rock wall at an altitude of 2,580 meters, lies the most inaccessible church in the world.

It is called Abuna Yemata Guh, one of the nine saints who, according to tradition, arrived in northern Ethiopia between the late 5th and early 6th centuries from Rome, Constantinople, and Syria.

The nine saints dedicated themselves to the expansion of Christianity, the establishment of monasteries, and the translation of the Scriptures into Ge’ez, the ancient Ethiopian language.

The rock-hewn church is carved into the side of one of the highest sandstone spires in the area and was allegedly carved by Abuna Yemata Guh himself in the 6th century, making it one of the oldest in the country.

Radiocarbon dating of a manuscript attributed to another of the Nine Saints confirms the presence of Christianity in the country during this period.

Inside, there are exceptionally well-preserved mural paintings, thanks to the dry climate of the region, dating between the 15th and 16th centuries based on their thematic, stylistic, and iconographic composition, although local tradition insists they are older.

Virtually all walls, domes, and columns are covered with scenes of the Apostles, the Nine Saints, Mary and Jesus, and numerous biblical characters from the Old Testament, as well as Ethiopian monks. There are also geometric decorations and traceries.

Recent technical analyses have identified the materials and techniques used in its creation. The presence of earth pigments such as hematite and goethite as primary pigments, along with minerals like cinnabar or lead white, was detected. The preparatory layer consisted of red clay and straw applied to the rock. The egg-based binder indicates the use of the tempera technique.

But what is truly astonishing is that even today it continues to receive faithful and pilgrims who defy the difficulty and danger of reaching it. After a steep and exhausting climb up the slope, visitors must cross a natural stone bridge hanging over the void on both sides.

Then, they must literally climb a vertical rock wall, relying solely on hand and foot holds, before walking along a narrow ledge barely 50 centimeters wide overlooking a 300-meter sheer drop.

Many mothers carry their newborns on the ascent to have them baptized in the church. The ascent typically takes about three hours, and the risk is total, as a simple slip could cost both lives.

The reward for the believer is the closeness to the saint, and for the visitor, the contemplation of the magnificent paintings inside the church, one of the most significant fresco collections in Ethiopia, before facing the daunting descent back. Abuna Yemata Guh is one of those places that are never forgotten.


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on February 9, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en La iglesia más inaccesible del mundo está excavada en el interior de una aguja de arenisca a 2.580 metros de altitud

Sources

Gebremariam, K.F., Kvittingen, L. & Nicholson, D.G. Multi-analytical investigation into painting materials and techniques: the wall paintings of Abuna Yemata Guh church. Herit Sci 4, 32 (2016). doi.org/10.1186/s40494-016-0101-6 | Frances M. Williams, Understanding Ethiopia: Geology and Scenery | Jonathan J. Mize, Modernity and the Rise of the Pocket God | Wikipedia


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