The sandstone cliffs of Gheralta in Tigray, Northern Ethiopia, which are 2580m tall, are the home to 35 hidden churches, some of which date back to the fourth century.
The climbs to reach the churches carved out of solid rock are arduous and involve near-vertical cliff faces at times and steep 300-metre ledges, particularly to reach the Abuna Yemata Church.
Although tourists occasionally use harnesses and ropes to help with the strenuous climb, the locals do not.
The churches, which are located 780kms north of Ethiopia’s capital city Addis Ababa, are visited each Sunday by around 50 people each and when there are religious festivals, this figure can rise to hundreds.
One of the local guides said: “If people do not come to the church, they have to pray hundreds of times. Everyone does the climb and comes to church, it is easy for us.
“The locals are used to the climb, we have done it many times.”
Although tourists can take two hours to reach each church, the locals do the walk in less than half this.
Regardless of the weather, the determined locals clamber up the rocks to the impressive churches.
The churches are adorned with paintings dating back to the 16th century, representing various saints and biblical scenes.
British tourist Will Molphy said: “The climbs can be terrifying and are not for the faint-hearted. It helps having a head for heights, the adrenaline helps you up. The views over the landscape are spectacular.”
The locals claim that the reason people are able to do the arduous climbs and not fall is because God is looking over them.
Some parts of the climb must be completed bare foot because of religious reasons as well as to help with gripping the rock face.
Two months after babies are born they are taken to the churches to be baptised.
A friend of the mother takes the new born baby as the steep climbs are too much for the new mother to do with a baby.
Corpses are also taken up the cliff so they can be laid to rest at the top.
There are monks in certain churches who tend to remain at the top of the escarpment except for when they need to sort out arranged marriages for the village’s youth.
They raise a few animals and cultivate small pieces of land to minimise the amount of food needed to be transported up the sandstone cliff.
Religious hermits sometimes live at the top of the escarpment as well.
The guides, which are essential for any church visit, are on hand to help with the climb and where tourists should place their feet for the smoothest ascent possible.
Many of the churches still have separate entrances for women and men and women are advised to cover themselves with a scarf.
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