Ethiopia’s Churches In The Sky

Dec 19, 2017 6 comments

The ancient Kingdom of Axum, now a part of Ethiopia, was one of the first nations in the world to adopt Christianity. The religion took strong foothold in 330 AD when King Ezana the Great declared it the state religion and ordered the construction of the imposing basilica of St. Mary of Tsion. Legend has it, that it here that Menelik, son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, brought the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments.

By the fifth century, nine saints from Syria, Constantinople and elsewhere had begun spreading the faith far beyond the caravan routes and deep into the mountainous countryside. These missionaries played a key role in the initial growth of Christianity in Ethiopia. The monks translated the Bible and other religious texts from Greek into Ethiopic allowing the locals who couldn’t read Greek to learn about Christianity. The religion’s mystical aspects found a curious draw among the young. As Christianity grew, a series of spectacular churches and monasteries were built high atop mountains or excavated out of solid rock, many of which are still in use today.


A priest is seen looking out of Abuna Yemata church’s only window. The church is located on aside of a cliff, 650 feet up from the floor of the valley. This image is from a recently published book “Ethiopia: The Living Churches of an Ancient Kingdom.”

These ancient churches were often built in the most impossible of places. A good example is the Abuna Yemata Guh in Tigray, in Northern Ethiopia. This 5th century church is perched 650 feet up in the sky, on the face of a vertical spire of rock. To reach it, one has to climb without any climbing ropes or harnesses, inching along narrow ledges and crossing a rickety makeshift bridge. The final leg of the journey involves scaling a sheer 19 feet-high wall of rock. The church was founded by Abuna Yemata, one of the nine saints, who chose the secluded spot as his hermitage.


This image puts things really into perspective. The entrance to the church can be seen on the right, about a third of the way up the pinnacle. Photo credit: Ethiopia—The Living Churches of an Ancient Kingdom


Photo credit: Owen Barder/Flickr


Beautiful frescoes cover the inside of the Abuna Yemata church. Photo credit: Matthew/Flickr


Photo credit: New Faces New Places


A priest holds open an ancient goat skin Bible decorated with vivid hand-drawn illustrations and ornate calligraphy. Photo credit: New Faces New Places


A 200 metre high “bridge” made of logs on the way to Abuna Yemata Guh. Photo credit: New Faces New Places


The church bell for Abuna Yemata Guh is actually two stones hanging halfway up the cliff. Photo credit: New Faces New Places


This 6th century monastery is located on top of the flat-topped mountain called Debre Damo. The only way to the monastery is up a sheer cliff 50-feet high. The monastery was founded by Abba Aragawi, one of the 'Nine Saints', and is known for its collection of manuscripts and for having the earliest existing church building in Ethiopia. Photo credit: Travel Aficionado/Flickr


This modern church is built in front of the grotto where Aragawi is said to have vanished or died. Photo credit: Ethiopia—The Living Churches of an Ancient Kingdom


The Debre Damo monastery is accessible only by rope up a sheer cliff. Photo credit: Achilli Family | Journeys/Flickr


A priest standing on the narrow ledge in front of the rarely used church of Daniel Korkor. Photo credit: Ethiopia—The Living Churches of an Ancient Kingdom


The hike up to the churches of Maryam Korkor and Daniel Korkor. Photo credit: Lonely Planet

petros et paulos tigré  Ethiopia

The Petros and Paulos church is located, like many others, in the Gheralta range. The church isn’t truly rock-hewn because only the sanctuary is cut into the rock, the rest of the church is built out onto a ledge. Reaching the church originally involved climbing a steep cliff using only foot and handholds. Today, it is replaced by a rickety wooden ladder.


The Mikael Debre Selam church. Photo credit: Carsten ten Brink/Flickr


Photo credit: Andrea Moroni/Flickr


Photo credit: Thomas Maluck/Flickr


  1. I find this very very strange ,,,, is it not that the houses of God should be easily accessible for all ages and sexes ! and certainly not dangerously pathed!! for some it could be thier last prayers !!!

    another question comes to my mind,,,, why did they have to do these churches and monasteries way up in caves in the mountains << were they afraid of something ??!!

    1. In answer to your first question: The Holy Bible is quite clear on those who may not approach the altar, lest they defile the sanctuary.

      Leviticus 21:18-23
      (18)For whatsoever man he be that hath a blemish, he shall not approach: a blind man, or a lame, or he that hath a flat nose, or any thing superfluous, (19)Or a man that is brokenfooted, or brokenhanded, (20)Or crookbackt, or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his eye, or be scurvy, or scabbed, or hath his stones broken; (21)No man that hath a blemish of the seed of Aaron the priest shall come nigh to offer the offerings of the LORD made by fire: he hath a blemish; he shall not come nigh to offer the bread of his God. (22)He shall eat the bread of his God, both of the most holy, and of the holy. 23Only he shall not go in unto the vail, nor come nigh unto the altar, because he hath a blemish; that he profane not my sanctuaries: for I the LORD do sanctify them.

      I would say that if one cannot make the trek up to these churches, then it is clear that person is flawed/blemished/lame and God does not want that person defiling His church.

  2. That is an old testament answer and horribly unchristian. You sound like an arrogant Pharisee. Jesus was accessible to all and everyone shall approach the altar boldly now under the grace of God's sacrifice of His Son. You best reread your scripture and cast off that cloak of self righteousness.

  3. You have to remember that although the nine saints were spreading Christianity, Ethiopia was surrounded by Muslim countries constantly trying to overrun them; and eventually did. So, in order to practice Christianity in Ethiopia it had to be done pretty much in secret at the risk of being killed. So most churches were built into the mountains. Either like is shown in this article or they were dug deep into the stone ground where they couldn't be seen from below. Search monolithic churches of Ethiopia and you'll find some even more amazing churches. National Geographic wrote a wonderful article about this. I believe it was the July 2004 issue.

  4. Ahh, if only we could all communicate with and believe in God in ways that are not exclusive and which deny the value of all the other ways.


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