The gateway to Tigrai and its biggest draw is the city of Axum, once the capital of the ancient Axumite Empire and a site of huge historical and archaeological importance. For most visitors this is the last port of call on the 'northern tour', but I wanted to venture further to explore the rock hewn churches that dot the plains to the east of the city and are often overlooked in favour of the more accessible wonders of Lalibela.
An early start from Axum and a long, dusty journey brought me first to the Temple of Yeha, a pre-Christian ruin dating back to the Sabean civilisation where ibex engravings can still be seen on the masonry and were of particular significance in their pagan faith. I also arrived in time for morning mass in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church next to the ruins.
Two hours beyond Yeha, an unmarked 'turn off' and what could only be described as a rocky pathway led to Maryam Wukro. Without our 4WD vehicle and brilliant driver Habtamu from Journeys Ethiopia, we would almost certainly have got lost or stuck, but we were able to make it to within a short walk of the cliff from which this remotest of the Tigraian churches has been excavated.
Once there, you will need to locate the priest and the only key holder to the church. This is likely to involve sending local children off to look for him. The church is located some distance from the village and the whole process can take some time, so patience is necessary.
The key opens a simple wooden door in the bare rock face which gives no indication as to how remarkable Maryam Wukro is until you step inside. Some of the ceilings must be at least ten metres tall, all dug out of the granite rock with the most basic of hand tools. Rock etchings and paintings cover some of the walls and the usual Ethiopian Orthodox Church paraphernalia of large rugs, religious drums and instrumental objects used in the services are scattered randomly across the floors. The largest of the chambers is only accessible to men, although I was allowed to peer through the doorway.
Maryam Wukro is very much an active place of religious worship and makes no attempt to be a tourist attraction. Overseas visitors are few and far between, and those that do make the pilgrimage are often deterred by the bats that live in the nooks and crannies of the church’s dark interior! The priest and the local people here speak not a word of English, but are incredibly charming, friendly and welcoming. I felt somehow blessed and very privileged to have been allowed through that simple wooden door.
There are many other ancients sites of interest in the vicinity, and so it is well worthwhile spending two to three days at the charming Gheralta Lodge close to the main town of Hawzen. The lodge is simple but stylish, with wonderful food courtesy of its Italian owners, and a really lovely place to relax with a good book when you’re not scouring the surrounding mountains for that next rock-hewn church!
From Gheralta, you can either drive the two hours to the local airport at Mekele, from where there are daily flights back to Addis, or continue south by road to Lalibela, a long but scenic journey through the wilderness of eastern Ethiopia."