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Day 204 – Indiana Jones and the Temple of Abuna Yemata Guh

13th April 2012


One guide, two Faranji’s, three churches and twelve hours of daylight. It was six thirty, our bed had had no bugs and we’d deftly skirted the pebble dashed and yellowed rim of toilet and shower. We were aiming for the second of the three churches by distance. The church of Debre Tsion Abuna Abraham was forty minutes of rock climbing and was home to some extremely pleasant priests who seemed genuinely happy to see us; their smiles were amplified by our own. We were relieved to find that the ‘crazy’ priest wasn’t at work that morning. The artwork inside the church was incredible but also provided a perfect example of the damage that the water seepage can create.

We’d gotten off to a great start, but we’d been looking forward to the church of Abuna Yemata Guh for some time. The guidebook informed as that not all who attempt to visit actually make it to the church. The sheer rock face three quarters of the way up creates a vertigo inducing obstacle in the pathway to God. But for us, the churches location was exactly why we’d chosen it. But, as is true all too often in Africa, good things come to those who pay. Despite us being in possession of one paid up guide, we’d need to wrangle with the local guides in order to explain why we didn’t want to pay for a second time and we’d also need to speak with local scouts and explain why we didn’t need them to accompany us and turn a day trip into a fully paid up colonial expedition. The explanation turned into us being forced into negotiations in order to ‘pay compensation’ to the aggrieved local guides. The scouts we would meet half way up the mountain.

We parked beneath a solitary tree in the middle of a ploughed field under another blazing midday sun. Again we discussed the safety requirements for Redvers, none then, and we began our walk. We crossed the fields and what little remained of a stream as the cattle herder scooped water from a shallow well and poured it out for his fairly young beasts to drink. We started up the hill and met an old man and his cartoonified stooge who resembled an overly cliched movie ‘redneck.’ We paid our fare, another 100Birr each and began the ascent proper. Our breath left us and no matter how much we drew in, it just didn’t seem to be quite as thick as the air we were used to. We perspired and slightly red, slightly sweaty and slightly out of breath we reached the vertical section of our climb. There was a back up as two Spanish ladies ahead of us waited to climb as the last of a Dutch group descended. The last lady had every right to be nervous during her descent. She would clearly be too heavy for any of her three scouts to hold should she have slipped, she probably wouldn’t have been able to support her own weight either, and, come to think of it, there was a very real danger she would bring the cliff face down with her. She melodramatically squawked about her fear of heights, every single movement was drawn out into a noise filled, attention grabbing, spectacle. A spectacle which, when viewed from below, was disturbingly explicit. We waited in the sun whilst she took an age to descend, her friends looking as tired as we were.

We joked about just bouncing her down the rocks but, eventually, she managed to get down herself. Next up were the Spaniards; two ladies, in their thirties, who appeared to have smoked and sunned and drunk their faces into premature maturity in spite of what I expect were weekly visits to some form of beauty salon. For the last five years they’d probably just been plastering over the cracks.

Either way, they too thought that the whole affair was a raucous adventure and they began their ascent with cackles of infectious laughter. We followed, in hushed British fashion we ascended without alarm and without too much narrative. It was very vertical, but fortunately there were some convenient hand and foot holds to aid our climb. As we neared the saddle in which the final climb lay Hailey had to hush the now raucous Spaniards, they were twenty metres from the church entrance and had caused such a commotion that the mass that had been taking place inside had been temporarily halted whilst the white men came, saw and hampered.

As we reached the saddle, our breath left us once more. As we looked out there was a vertical drop in front of us and a view out across the plains of Tigrai. A narrow ledge about two feet wide led around the side of the huge stone pinnacle in front of us. The ledge led to a carved hole in the rock inside which had been sculpted the church of Abuna Yemata Guh.

It felt like we were in an Indiana Jones movie; all that was missing were the villains of the piece; someone to fight in order to gain entrance. Inside were the most pristine 900 year old paintings we’ve ever seen. The narrow entrance meant that little light could enter to damage the art and the churches location had protected it from marauding Muslims and crazy invaders for its entire existence. It was the most surreal church we’d visited and had superseded Bet Giyorgis in Lalibela as our favourite.

Inside we felt a little awkward. The small congregation was sat quietly and patiently in the shadows. In the doorway, the priest continued to read from the parchment. An unease had been created and we were definitely strangers in a local venue, but it didn’t change the fact that it was spectacular in the extreme.

We descended the cliff, the scouts pointing out hand and foot holds to us which was handy but somewhat unnecessary. We had to pay them all a small sum for their services. One scout was either particularly enamoured with us or spotted a sweet little earner, call us skeptical, and invited us around to his house for coffee. Hailey suggested that we had too little time, but Laura thought ‘why not?’ So there we were, sat with the scout’s wife and three young daughters, all beautiful. Not only were we given coffee but we were fed and Hailey explained that Ethiopian custom meant that when one is invited for coffee, it is a gesture of generosity and is entirely at the expense of the host. We thanked the family and as we left the wife’s broad smile turned into a grimace. The change of expression was as clear as it was disturbing. The grimace bore more than just disappointment, it bore malice and we suddenly felt very grateful that we were leaving. Hailey of course insisted that the family had not expected anything in return but weren’t so sure.

We visited one last church on our way home and arrived just as the mass was finishing. We had our backs ceremonially whipped with palm leaves as we entered a far more modern church than we’d seen previously. Apparently the convenient location combined with rich artwork has turned Abreha We Atsheba into a rich church. There was nothing 10th century about the strewn electrics and golden plastic clocks strung about the place, but its artwork and carving was a delight to observe. As we left Hailey told us that the village had won the world ‘green awards’ as a culmination of ten years of terracing, grazing restrictions and public education in order to turn what was a desert town into a lush green retreat amongst the barren hills. The village chief will be traveling to Rio De Janeiro in order to present his ‘gift’ at an international conference.

Posted by ibeamish 12:22 Archived in Ethiopia

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