Debra Maryam, dug into the rock

Apart from the surroundings of Lalibela, two areas outside the cities have a particular concentration of churches and monasteries. One is that of Tigray, between the cities of Adigrat and Mekele, the other that of Lake Tana.
The Tigray historic churches are basically rock churches, in whole or in large part excavated in the rock or created with the adaptation of caves and crevices. One researcher, Abba Teweldemedhin Yosief, has documented a hundred and twenty but, given the size and characteristics of the area where the churches are scattered, the same scholar does not exclude that others remain to be discovered whose memory was lost. Even many of the known churches are indeed well guarded by a territory of arduous walls and incredible rock pinnacles, which rise from the plateau and seem to be made precisely for the hermitage.

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One arrives at the the church of Debra Maryam dating from the thirteenth century on Korkor mountain, one of the most significant both historically and as a location, by squeezing through a narrow rift that rises from the base of a towering cliff and, higher up, by following a path that is not always easy. After an hour’s climb, there leaning at an angle to the rock, Debra Maryam appears, with its two white exterior walls, crossed by two rows of green-yellow-red stripes. Inside, where almost everything is carved in the rock, are three naves, two rows of columns which join each other in an arc, paintings on the walls and even two ‘domes’: this architectural element which is often present in the rock churches of Tigray, is used, so to speak, ‘by half’, because there is only the concave side of the dome, cut into the stone, and not the corresponding convex side.

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But, moving a few steps beyond the church, we can see with some surprise that this out of the world place of worship is also part of a microcosm with its own micro-economy: in addition to the elder monk in charge of the church, living in his extremely poor cave dwelling, there are others who live as hermits in caves connected by passages with Debra Maryam; but, almost unreal, children also appear, and there is even a small boy, with a plow pulled by two oxen, who is working a small plot of land. The surprises are not over yet. Following the monk along a trail that runs around the top where Debra Maryam is dug out, we come onto a sort of narrow balcony that overlooks a breathtaking view of rocky mountains, natural skyscrapers and ambe that emerge from the plateau: below, a sheer drop of several hundred meters. From the balcony-path a second tiny church entrance opens, two rooms in all, excavated from a cave.

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The architectural structures of the rock churches of Tigray are not always particularly rigorous. But this only adds to their charm, because each – among the most suggestive, Medhane Alem Kesho and Debra Tsion – is a unique episode of an extraordinary, original effort of appropriation of nature and a raising to the divine of the material it made available to them. The interplay between the environment, the landscape context and artistic quality makes the Tigray churches a priceless treasure. Unfortunately, the material failure of some parts of the rock inside a church such as Debra Maryam, as well as the others, and the  generally not excellent state of preservation of the paintings, tell us that it is also a heritage to be preserved and that there is not much time remaining to intervene.

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Lake Tana, one of the oldest places of worship

Lake Tana with its many islands hosted, probably as early as the fourth century, some of the oldest Christian places of worship in Ethiopia: unfortunately not much is left of the religious settlements of the time, apart from the rectangular structure of such churches as Tana Cherkos and Dega Estefanos, rebuilt in the nineteenth century. The monasteries of Lake Tana were mostly founded in the fourteenth century and in the next they served to secure the treasures of the region’s churches during the Christian-Muslim wars. The majority of Lake Tana churches follow the circular plan with the conical roof (the form that traditional Ethiopian huts generally have).

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The larger circle, that of the ambulatory, composed of wooden columns or masonry, is generally open to the outside, while inside, in concentric circles, are the presbytery and the drum, with walls often decorated by paintings: with its twenty-eight square pillars connected with arches completely in the round, one of the most noble examples of this type of architecture is the church of Kebran Gabriel, on the picturesque island of Kebran on the southern tip of the lake, opposite the town of Bahar Dar.
Kebran Gabriel is one of the monasteries founded in the fourteenth century. Today there are about  seventy monks, but in the past Kebran had also come to accommodate five hundred. On the smaller islands especially you can find churches that are architecturally much more humble and rudimentary. The regime of the monk’s life is everywhere modest: in Kebran, where women are not allowed, young people eat once a day, in common, while older monks habitually consume food in their small dwellings, and often fast as well. (L.M.)




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