Abuna Yemata Church

There are lots of small shops that line the streets of Hausien, with more or less the same goods, nothing very inspiring for dinner. I checked out the couple of restaurants, settling at last on the café on the dusty crossroads that is the throbbing heart of the town. There was a football league match being broadcast on TV, and people had their gaze turned to the screen, but took practically no notice of the action, let alone support either of the teams. Their purpose seemed to be there to eat and be bored.

I had furfur, a dish made of broken up ingera, stir-fried with tomatoes and onions, so unappetising and indigestible that I couldn’t finish it and even woke up in the middle of the night feeling nauseous and was actually sick.

The waiter was hurrying among the tables to take the orders and deliver them, but in between he broke the drudge by giving me some attention. He talked about one church, called Abuna Yemata, reachable from the next village of Megab, that is hewn in the rock at a considerable height from the ground and is rather dangerous to climb to. I was instantly attracted, and reading about it later made me want even more to attempt the climb. At most, if I sensed I was putting my life in jeopardy, I could always back out.

So, the next morning, I got up early without wasting any time to wait for a sluggishly slow breakfast to come. I didn’t even take leave of the hotel owner, whom with convincing arguments I’d talked into giving me the room at the local price and not the faranji rate she’d initially quoted. She grudgingly ceded to my sensible request, but after that incident was very sparing of smiles, frustrated in her bid to make extra profit.

No bus was available, so I chose to walk to the next village on the path that crossed the wood and ran alongside a stream. Just as I rejoined the main road, I saw a car approaching, rushed to the carriageway and stopped it. I was taken onboard and met two policemen who were going to investigate into a case of murder (one detective said a person had passed away).

From the village of Megab, I took a walk out. A boy approached me to offer himself as a guide and we set out to the church of Abuna Yemata. A magnificent mountain of multiple towers rose a few kilometres away and he pointed to it as being our destination. I couldn’t understand, however, exactly where the church was carved, because the central body is tremendously high and I wished it wasn’t perched into its higher part.

I wanted to leave my luggage somewhere, so as not to be hampered in my movements and a peasant offered to keep it. He also proposed I should drink coffee and I accepted it to make up for my skipped breakfast. His dwelling was close by.

You enter a walled fence into a sort of cattle paddock strewn with hay and dung, then cross into another fence where the goats are kept and finally you reach the house proper. This consists of a room only, with an oven in a corner and a raised platform that serves as a bed covered by goat hides.

His wife toasted the coffee beans on the embers and let us breathe in the delicious fumes, then ground them in a mortar and brewed the coffee in an earthenware jug. We were served three cups each in successive rounds, the husband always getting the largest of all, which must have been his own.

We resumed the walk and fended off the verbal (and physical, on my guide) attack of a man who claimed to be the official scout. Before we tackled the slope we were joined by the priest who came along with the key. The first part of the climb was not particularly difficult, at least until we got to the wall of rock. Here the priest took off his sandals and started climbing in front of me up a rock face that had built-in hand- and footholds like the ones you’d find in a climbing gym. My hands sweated as I saw the view become increasingly breathtaking from the higher elevation, but I refrained from looking directly underneath.

We finally reached a passage from the front to the back of the mountain where the church is found. Here a sheer drop on either side solemnly highlights the incredible spot, but it’s not over yet. We had to slide our body close to the wall along a narrow ledge that seemed to be hanging in mid-air. At last we got to the eyrie: the church door opens on a hall where we sat down and took breath. After a few minutes the priest turned the iron key into the lock and I admired the finest mural paintings of all the churches I’d seen. The beauty was real, but maybe just a little increased by the temporary sense of relief after the perilous climb.

Back to Megab, I waited in vain for a bus to Wukro across the Geralta, but I gave up when the odds became unlikely. I was taken back to Sinkata by the same policemen of this morning, this time at the back of the pickup. I took a bus to Mekele, arriving after nightfall. It’s a modern town that you approach from a high road that bestows a beautiful view. A kind photographer helped me find a room in a hotel that must eke out its income by exploiting the world’s most ancient trade. No sooner have I set my foot into the room and asked about my marital status, than I’m offered a lady for the night.