Rock-hewn churches of Tigray

tigray rock hewnThe epithet of ‘best-kept secret’ has been applied to so many modern mediocrities that it seems ludicrously inadequate when confronted by religious sanctuaries as magnificently obscure as the church curved into the sandstone cliffs of Tigraye. Practically unknown to other Ethiopians-let alone the outside world-before 1966, the rock-hewn churches of Tigray have been described by the British academic Ivy pearce as ‘the greatest of the historical cultural heritages of the Ethiopian people. Most of these architectural gems remain in active use today, several house paintings and other sacred artefacts dating to the middle ages, and very one of them is imbued with an aura of spirituality that seeps from the very rock into which they are carved.

A distinctive feature of Tigray are its rock-hewn churches. Similar in design to those of Lalibela. These churches are found in four or five clusters -- Gheralta, Takatisfi, Atsbi and Tembien -- with Wukro sometimes included. Some of the churches are considered earlier than those of Lalibela, perhaps dating from the eighth century. Mostly monolithic, with designs partly inspired by classical architecture, they are often located at the top of cliffs or steep hills, for security.

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