The climb takes around forty-five minutes and it is literally a climb using your hands and feet for the last part of the journey. Holes in the vertical rock surface are what you use to keep yourself from falling off and to get to the top. As The “Lonely Planet” guidebook says, if you’re scared of heights, “Don’t look down!” Having a panic attack or “freezing” here would not be a good idea.
The first reward of the tough climb is the fact that you can now stand on your two feet and relax. As you catch your breath and glance in almost any direction, the views of the other rock mountains and over the plains leave you breathless again.
Ok, so I didn’t find the climb as challenging as the famous guidebooks claimed it to be (Lonely Planet and Bradt). But it was definitely exhilarating. In the image above is one of the priests of the church, he stands on the ledge of what is the last part of the journey into the rock church of Abuna Yemata Guh. To the right side of the frame is a drop off of a good few hundred meters. On that rock wall to the left there was a snake when we first tried to enter. The two did not make for a good combination. Luckily we were accompanied by some locals, who seemed to have scared the snake away, though probably into the church.
The main reward of the climb is the church itself. The frescoes on the walls and ceilings are centuries old. There’s a certain kind of serenity that one feels in a place so isolated from most of the world. That serenity is soon destroyed by talks of tips to various members of the group of locals who are there with us, some invited, other not, but let’s keep things serene for this blog post.
I’m not much into frescoes or architecture on their own. My interest has been and still is in the human aspect of everything. I wanted to see the church come alive, so I asked the local guide to find out when they held services there.
It turned out that the next day the church would hold a small baptism ceremony for one baby. When would that be? The start – at 6 am, meaning we’d have to begin the climb in complete darkness at around 5 am (the sun only begins to rise midway through 6 am at this time of the year in Ethiopia).
The ceremony began with the head priest reading from the bible, then everyone else in the clergy followed. I took this image at 3200 ISO and 1/5S shutter speed, stabilizing myself against one of the church columns.
The young deacon is next up after the head priest. As those who read this blog regularly can imagine, the whole candle-lit side of things got me pretty excited. However, because there were only two candles lighting the whole church, I did have to keep the ISO at no lower than 3200. These are the moments I wish I had one of the newer Nikons with which you can shoot at 6400 ISO and still get usable images.
The praying goes on for some time. By the time it is interrupted, the sun is high enough to penetrate slightly into the church. The same young deacon from the previous image got a large cross and got dressed up for the second part of the ceremony. He asked if I wanted to take his photo and of course, I didn’t decline.
The actual baptism part wasn’t terribly exciting visually and the crammed cave where it was done limited my angles. Here a baby held by the young deacon is having holy water poured over her by a senior priest. This was done a few times. Then the baby was wrapped up into a towel, put on her grandmother’s back and went back to sleep.
I’m currently in a town called Mekele, the most pleasant of all the places that I’ve been to so far in Ethiopia. After some harsh times and endless encounters with incredibly annoying people, Mekele is refreshing – full of helpful, friendly folks not wanting anything from us other than to share a smile or to help us. I’ve even met a guide/translator/fixer who might be one of the best of such folks I’ve ever encountered on any of my journeys.
We went to a village in the mountains today which was rather amazing, if it’s a sign of things to come – I am excited! In fact I have a few very exciting plans for the near future. Stay tuned!