FOREWORD: In 2012 I traveled around North Ethiopia by motorcycle. The region is famous for its spectacular rock churches. I searched for some of the lesser visited ones, which were still unspoilt, uncorrupted by the temptations of mass tourism. This is a short story about one such church.
A chilly early morning, piercing wind, pitch-black darkness and a winding mountain road made of rubble and sand. The motorbike wheels kept sliding along loose stones. I couldn’t see far enough with the bike-light to plan ahead. Zemenfes, my guide and translator was behind me. This made the the bike harder to control. Eventually I lost balance. We fell to the side. Neither of us was hurt, so we continued, arriving in time for the beginning of morning mass in an ancient rock church.
A single photo can inspire us to visit a place, no matter how far it is or how hard it is to get there. A picture of a church in an improbable location, carved out of a side of a mountain inspired me. A surreal sight. How did anyone actually make it up there? What kinds of people went through the trouble? I wanted to know first hand.
The church was in Abi Adi, Tigray. The region had few visitors and hence was still unaffected by all the downfalls of mass tourism. This sounded good to me. With a motorbike at hand and a very competent guide and translator ready to join me on any adventure, there was no reason not to go.
We stopped the motorbike at the village below the mountain. A set of stairs carved out of stone and a tunnel through that mountain connected the church to the world. So that’s how people got up there!
It was still dark outside. Only a couple of bleak lightbulbs illuminated the interior of the church. The smell of burning wax filled the air. Men murmured prayers with candles in their hands.
As the sun began to rise, light peered into the church through narrow windows. It formed bright, halo-like outlines around whoever read from the prayer book. It’s as if just for a few moments that person became saintly, divine.
We stayed for the entire service. Apart from a loudspeaker which relayed the prayers inside the church to the village with horrible distortion, there wasn’t much to suggest that we were in the 21st century. The church itself, the men’s costumes, their faces, shaped and carved by the elements – none of this belonged to my fast paced, modern, anti-wrinkle-cream-world.
In some sense we traveled back in time, or at least into a different dimension. There’s a certain magic about this kind of time-travel. The isolation from everything that usually makes rational sense and being in the presence of people whose faith is so genuine and so strong can lead even a sceptic like me to believe in the possibility of the divine, if only for a little while.
The divine and the magic are gone when I go back to my world, dominated by business-suits, transport that needs to run on schedule and the idea that everything can be commodified.
A few of years on I still remember how magical it felt to enter that other, now so incredibly distant world. All because of a single photo.