Wednesday, February 29, 2012
(another long entry, I am afraid, right on the heels of yesterday's two entries, but I have to catch up, after all these days without internet! - I promise, though, this is the last one with churches)
We arrived in Wukro at dusk. The best hotel in town (10 US$ a night) had one single room available, and one double that stank badly. The building looked like a prison, three stories high with rooms exiting on a veranda around a narrow concrete courtyard. Every noise echoed upwards. Our second choice hotel was being renovated, but luckily we spotted a brand new – in fact, the second floor hadn’t been finished yet – and spotless clean small family hotel. Only limitation was that the family didn’t speak a lot of English, but he, we managed in China, in Myanmar, in Laos, we would manage in Wukro, of all places. Dinner menu was entirely local, but with the language pages of our guide book we made progress. Until we realized that everything we wanted wasn’t available; lent had just started, and here they seriously fast for no less than 55 days (no meat, no milk, no eggs, no animal products at all, and no sex!), so why would the kitchen have anything meaty at all? In the end we settled for injera with lentils, basically because that was all there was (Injera is a local kind of leavened bread with the texture – and the taste – of a wet towel, omnipresent in Ethiopia).
The hotel had no running water. Nobody had running water in Wukro, because of water shortage. What was worse, nobody in Wukro had tonic. Hardship traveling, so much is clear! But we loved the place, really, and for two nights we can survive. In fact, on the second evening we did have running water for a couple of hours, and I suspect that the owner put it on, especially for us.
(1) running water being delivered to the hotel
We still had the car for another day, so we set off early again, first in western direction to an area called Geraltha, where another concentration of rock-hewn churches is located. In fact we only went to see one of them, the Abreha we Atsbeha church, possibly the oldest church in Tigray, if the legend that it was founded by the twin kings Abreha and Atsbeha in the 4th Century is true; although scholars think the 10th Century is more likely – you see, this is the problem with Ethiopian history, nobody knows for sure, and discrepancies are not only common, but also huge. To give you an idea, the church is some 16x13 m large, 6 m high, and has been cut out of the rock in cruciform, with a fabulously carved roof supported by 13 pillars. But you really have to come and see this for yourself, no description does justice to the real thing.
(2, 3, 4, 5) The Abreha we Atsbeha church, perhaps one of the nicests ones: a priest opening the door, which is nicely decorated, as is an inside pilar; the door inside the church apparently leads to the tomb of either Abreha or Atsbeha, the two fopunders of the church.
The rest of the morning we enjoyed the country side, and the spectacular cliffs in which many of the other churches were situated – without actually climbing all the way up. We drove to the small village of Megab, where we had coffee in the village coffee house. No espresso machine here, but just a small frying pan to roast beans, and then prepare the coffee on a wood fire stove. The main street – the only street in town – is dominated by small houses and camel traffic.
(6) a fig tree, omnipresent in the landscape - unfortunately, it was not fig time
(7) Geraltha range, sandstone cliffs in which multiple other churches have been carved
(8) industrial chicken farm on the road to Megab
(9) and the only entertainment in Megab - and in many other villages around Northern Ethiopia
After lunch, back in Wukro, we headed south to try to find Mikael Imba, another of the Tigray churches. We had been debating whether we could reach it on and off, the past few days, initially with the car owner who confidently stated that we couldn’t go because road was closed, then after a few phone calls it turned out that the road was open, which was confirmed when we left Aksum, only to be told this morning that the road was in fact closed. But further enquiring, including checking the Wukro tourist office, confirmed that the road was indeed open. So when we arrived at the turn off, the road was in fact closed – but luckily, a detour a little further down led back to the road we needed. The challenges of traveling in Ethiopia.
Even without a church at the end, this would have been a fabulous trip. The road first follows a broad river valley, in between towering cliffs, to a small village. Every conceivable part of the valley, and of the slopes, has been terraced. Thanks to the river, which does contain some water so here and there, irrigation is an option, and the agriculture here look a lot more successful than we have seen so far. Past the village the road begins to climb, and after every hairpin bend the view becomes more impressive. The church itself is reached by a short climb topped by a wooden ladder to the plateau – the amba – where it is located. Again, a totally different type of church, three-quarters hewn out of the rock with a beautiful façade.
(10, 11) the view, terraced fields along the river, and the same from much higher up, and (12) another typical farm complex
(13) the Mikael Imba church from the outside - just so you get this right, all the rock around it has been removed (as well as the rock inside, of course)
(14) I cannot illustrate cross-bedding better than through this picture, now, can I? (Geological reference - for those who don't get it, don't worry)
(15) every church has its characters hanging around
One of the problems with these churches is that the priests insist that you take of your shoes, sometimes not just in front of the church, but way back. A pretty useless exercise, I think, because we are subsequently made to walk on our socks through sand and dust, and then through the pigeon shit around the church, before we enter the church on these same socks. The floors of the churches are often covered with carpets, paradise for fleas – but not as much paradise as our socks, which somehow seems an even more attractive place for the fleas than the church carpets. Hardship travel, I told you.
Wukro itself is not very exciting. It is just one very long street, sort of Wild West town built along the main road. The local rock-hewn church, Wukro Chirkos just outside town, isn’t very impressive, nothing compared to the others we have seen. But the stadium, this is something special indeed. No grass on the pitch, and no nets in the goals, but the stands are reminiscent of a Roman amphitheatre!
(16) the cows coming home, late afternoon near Wukro
(17) Wukro's Roman amphitheatre, now the football stadium: no grass, but what about the stands!!
(18) future local beauty queen of Wukro - I get a little tired of all those kids wanting to have their picture taken, but this one was worthwhile