In the far north of Ethiopia are the rock-hewn churches and monasteries of Tigrai. They lie in the beautiful Giralto Mountains close to the ancient town of Axum. If you really want to get into the history of Ethiopia, then this is a must-see destination. We also recommend climbing up to one of the mountain top monasteries, if you’re up for it.
Axum was one of the first capitals of Ethiopia, the centre of the Axumite dynasty. Its heyday was from 150BC to approx. 850AD. The Axumite empire shows the strong influence of the Greeks and also the Persians, their main trading partners. This city of ruined palaces and mysterious obelisks is also home to the somewhat dubious stories revolving around King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Indeed Ethiopians still believe that the Arc of the Covenant is in Axum guarded by a holy priest. This priest is the only person who is allowed to see the Arc. And he guards it until his death.
Axum is not an immediately impressive as the other cultural icons such as Lalibela and Gondar. But those with a keen interest in history will appreciate its sites and associated legends. The main sites are the obelisk and the modern and old churches of Maryam Tsion. The churches themselves are reasonably interesting, but what’s more fascinating was the wholly unexpected little museum. Inside was a vast wealth of treasure from coronation crowns of ancient kings, ornate robes lines with jewels to Axum crosses.
But the nearby Ghiralta mountains are also a drawcard. If travelling from the Tigrai region, we recommend a visit the ancient and remarkably well-preserved Yeha temple from the 4th century BC.
Rock-hewn churches of Tigrai
The main attraction of this beautiful area are the ancient rock-hewn churches in the Tigrai mountains. These churches have been built into the sandstone rock, some as old as the 4th century, when Christianity first came to Ethiopia. This area makes a great introduction to Ethiopia as it is home to the earliest churches.
If you’re looking for a spot of adventure, you can hike up to visit one or more of the monasteries perched on the top of the mountain tops. Depending on which monastery is chosen, this could entail a just a steepish walk, or a tricky section of rock scrambling or even been hauled up a rope by some strong-armed monks. A knowledgeable local guide is essential. (Note that this final monastery is not open to women!)
Main highlights of Tigrai & Axum
- Rock-hewn churches such as Abreha we Atsbeha
- Stelae obelisks in Axum – 75 of the tallest stelae ever erected
- Stunning mountain scenery
- Hiking up to the mountain-top monasteries
- Ancient temple at Yeha
- Maryam Tsion Church museum at Axum
- Engraved trilingual tablets from the time of Christ