We have been traveling in northern Ethiopia for two weeks and have also had a series of overseas visitors, so the blog postings have, alas, been rather scarce of late. I hope to make this up to faithful readers by a rapid series of postings about the history and geography of northern Ethiopia over the next week or so. Thanks for your patience!
Among the many man-made splendors in northern Ethiopia are the rock-hewn churches, of which there are many. The most famous location is in Lalibela (about which more in a future post). There are some 200 of these rock-hewn churches in Tigray, and 25 of them are located in what is called the “Wukro cluster.” Perhaps the most accessible of these churches is the church of Wukro Chirkos (sometimes written as Wukro Turkos). Wukro is a town of about 30,000 people about 40 km north of Mekelle on the road to Adigrat. The Wukro Chirkos church is about 500 meters off the main highway, so it is easy to get to. I am told that it was “discovered” by the outside world (a British expedition) in 1868, and is reportedly the first of the rock-hewn churches to be made known to the outside world. Some of these churches are VERY difficult to reach (by donkey or mule expedition followed by a hand-overhand climb up a 40 foot rope to get to the top–I do not plan to visit any of these churches)!.
OK, so “big deal.” What is a “rock-hewn church” anyway? The rock-hewn churches are just that: they are churches excavated, by hand, out of solid rock. The Ethiopians (who have been Orthodox Christians since the 3rd or 4th Century AD) found suitable locations, decided to build a church, and then excavated the entire church in one piece out of solid rock, leaving arches and pillars standing inside. They are incredible feats of engineering, and they get more and more spectacular as you think about what they did, when they did it, and with what they carried out their architectural feats.
Wukro Chirkos juts out from a low cliff along the side of a hill east of the main road. The church is said by the locals to date from the 4th Century to the reign of the twin brother kings Abreha and Atsbeha, but some scholars think it is a few hundred years more recent than this. An external roof and raised porch were added in the mid-20th Century due to seepage. The interior of the church was burned in the 16th Century by a Muslim intruder from Somalia, Ahmed Gragn.
The rock-hewn churches are generally constructed in a cruciform shape, with three rooms: an exterior “chanting room,” an interior “holy” room or sanctuary, and then a deeply-recessed “holy of holies,” into which only the priest may enter. The holy of holies contains a replica of the Ark of the Covenant in every Ethiopian Orthodox Church, since it is believed that Menelik I (reportedly the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba) is said to have transported the original Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem to Ethiopia as a gift from his father. Ethiopian tradition says that the original Biblical Ark of the Covenant rests in a church in Axum in northern Ethiopia. (Steven Spielberg says it rests in a wooden crate in the basement of the Smithsonian Institution, but that’s a whole ‘nother story!).
Here is your tour of the Church of Wukro Chirkos. Enjoy!
Distant view of the modern bell tower as you enter the exterior gate of the church.
You enter the church grounds through a modern gate and fence at the bottom of the hill. As you look up, you can see a modern belltower with a loudspeaker and the hard rocky ground surrounding the church is obvious. This is austere countryside.
The church may have been used for close to 16 centuries, and there are a lot of burials in the area, dating from ancient to modern times.
Graves outside the church of Wukro Chirkos, hidden in the foliage.
You clamber up a rocky pathway to reach the gate to the interior of the church compound. The colors red, yellow and green are typical of all Ethiopian Orthodox Churches and are the main colors of the Ethiopian flag.
Entrance to the interior compound of Wukro Chirkos.
As you enter the church courtyard, you are met by a couple of inhabitants. Wukro Chirkos is home to a large assembly of priests, monks, nuns and deacons. (The “deacons” are actually students who have come to study theology). An entrance fee of 150 Birr (about $15) is charged. Immediately upon entering, you notice a nice rock cross over a recent grave.
A cross just inside the courtyard of Wukro Chirkos.
Turning to the right, you see a broad set of low stone stairs and the church directly behind them.
Entrance to the church of Wukro Chirkos.
The modern external portico has a locked door, but having paid our entrance fee (and gotten a receipt–you can’t do anything in Ethiopia without getting a receipt), the priest cheerfully unlocked the door to show us inside. Removal of footwear is mandatory. Women are allowed inside at Wukro Chirkos (which is not true for all church structures, particularly monasteries).
The external portico.
Once inside, you find a rather darkened structure. It doesn’t seem too big—until you remember that this was a solid block of rock and that everything you see was chiseled out by hand in perfect symmetry. That is impressive.
Interior of the church of Wukro Chirkos, looking back from the sanctuary (“holy room”) through the “chanting room” towards the door. A ceremonial drum is visible in the corner–a staple of Ethiopian church services.
Interior of the sanctuary of Wukro Chirkos, all carved out of a single block of stone.
Carved pillars inside the church. The surrounding stone was chiseled away, leaving these magnificent supporting pillars inside the church.
Ornate pillars inside the church. There is enormous symbolism in all of the architecture, which would take an entire volume to attempt to explain, even if I understood it all…
You cross through the Chanting Room, into the Sanctuary, and then you are face to face with the entrance to the Holy of Holies. Inside are the most sacred relics of the church, as well as the obligatory replica of the Ark of the Covenant. Only the priest (often referred to as the “Owner” of the church) may enter.
The priest of Wukro Chirkos, in front of the entrance to the Holy of Holies, holding a 5th Century holy book, which he has taken out to show us.
Priest holding open the 5th century book. It is in good shape, largely because the pages are not paper. The pages are made of vellum (dried, stretched sheepskin or goatskin) on which the manuscript has carefully been written. Red letters are used for the names of Jesus, Mary, various saints an other holy personages.
Maltese cross carved on one of the side pillars in the sanctuary.
As you look up towards the ceiling, you can see the remnants of murals and paintings that were badly damaged in the ancient fire when the church was burned. (You get conflicting stories as to who was actually responsible for this, but it was not an accident…).
Remnants of ancient ceiling murals, damaged by fire.
Decorative ceiling carving inside Wukro Chirkos. Remember, all of this is carved from one block of stone–all of the interior spaces were cut out and taken away to create all of the structures and decorative motifs.
Vaulted ceiling, damaged by ancient fire.
As you exit the sanctuary and enter the chanting room, you pass a ceremonial drum on the floor to your right. (For some reason, I love photographing Ethiopian church drums–get used to them!).
Ethiopian church drum. These are widely used in church services to accompany singing and chanting.
As you exit the church, you can turn to your left and circle around the building and up to the top of the rock from which the church was carved. This takes you up to modern belltower (complete with loudspeakers).
Exit the church, turn the corner, and climb up the rock to reach the modern belltower.
Modern belltower of the church at Wukro Chirkos.
From the top of the rock into which the church is cut, you get a great view of the surrounding—and rather austere—countryside.
The view from the hill where the belltower was constructed.
From the top of the hill you can get a good look down into the valley (especially if you have a telephoto lens) and see the “student dormitories”–the stone tukuls with thatched grass roofs where the “deacons” live when they are not up at the church studying.
Student housing for the Deacons of Wukro Chirkos.
Stay tuned! There is more to come! Our next stop will be yhe fabulous church of Abreha we Atsbeha, generally considered the finest rock-hewn church in Tigray.