Gheralta is the site of numerous, ancient, rock-hewn churches with spectacular fresco paintings but, unlike the more well-known and accessible churches of Lalibela, these architectural marvels are carved out of rock outcroppings located throughout a vast and remote area. The climb up to some of the churches is physically demanding, but the effort to reach them is well rewarded, although only the most fit traveler will be able to see more than one or two a day.
Abuna Yemata Guh. Considered to be Ethiopia’s most spectacular site of any rock-hewn church, Abuna Yemata Guh is carved into a tall rock pillar. The wall and ceiling paintings are particularly sophisticated and well preserved. Nine apostles are pictured on one of the roof domes and nine Syrian monks are depicted on the other. This church is reached by a challenging vertical climb and has narrow, precipitous ledges, dropping over 500 feet straight down.
Abreha we Atsbeha. Legends claim that this church, constructed in the middle of the fourth century, was named after the twin Emperors (Abreha and Atsbeha) of Axum. While such stories are part of local tradition, their validity is unsubstantiated. What is not in dispute is that Abreha we Astbeha is one of the largest and most beautiful of all the churches. There are thirteen large pillars and several decorated arches supporting the roof. The frescoes, depicting the history of the Ethiopian Orthodox church may be more contemporary than the carving of the original architecture.
Daniel Korkor. This church consists of two small rooms that were the habitation of one monk. The walls and domed ceiling are decorated with paintings depicting Ethiopian saints and evangelists. A small cemetery is also carved into the stone. Both this church and Maryam Korkor are located on top of a giant massif. The panoramic views from these sites are spectacular and it is worth overcoming a fear of heights to see them.
Maryam Korkor. The paintings in this church are somewhat diminished by time and the intrusion of water. The building's architecture, however, more than makes up for the poor conservation of the wall paintings. The church has a high, domed ceiling supported by eleven pillars, each of which is painted with the visage of a saint or angel.
Each of the churches in the area features a different and unique style of painting. Coupled with the physical settings offering infinite vistas, and the profound serenity that mirrors that experienced by ancient worshipers, Gheralta is a unique and transformative experience for the adventurous traveler.
Debre Damo is a sixth-century monastery built on the top of a high (7,000 feet /3,000 meters), flat mountain (amba) in an arid, remote area. Its construction remains a mystery, and many local legends describe mythical flying serpents involved in carrying the fitted stones and wood to the extreme elevation. Certainly the difficulty of access contributes to its attraction for the visitor, as does a magnificent collection of ancient manuscripts. Visitors must be physically fit and agile, as entry to the monastery is achieved by climbing up a sheer cliff face using a leather rope and intermittent foot and hand holds carved into the stone.