Ancient rock-hewn churches are under threat: why it matters

Ethiopia’s ancient civilizations are believed to date back more than 3,000 years. Many of the country’s most famous ancient artifacts are found in Tigray. The region has been embroiled in war since November 2020. Fighting between forces allied to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Tigrayan troops has led to the deaths of thousands of people and displaced millions. It has also caused the destruction of numerous historical monuments. With the region under a blockade, it has been difficult to track the scale of the damage done. Hagos Abrha Abay, a philologist, is documenting the region’s heritage loss. He sheds light on new reports of destruction in Ger’alta, which hosts some of Tigray’s oldest churches and monasteries.

Ger‘alta is a principally mountainous zone located in a sandstone escarpment in south-central Tigray. It is in the district of Hawzen, which is presumed to date back to the South-Arabian migration to Ethiopia in 8th to 7th BCE.

Pottery, inscriptions, and hagiographic traditions dating back to the Aksumite period depict Ger‘alta as one of the most important regions of ancient civilization in the Horn of Africa. Cartographically, it appears in the 15th century as a component of the Ǝndärta province that occupied eastern and southeastern Tigray.

Ger’alta’s mountains give it one of the most captivating terrains in the northern Ethiopian highlands. Many of these mountains host ancient rock-hewn churches and monasteries, making the area a spiritual haven for pilgrims. These structures are recognized as world heritage sites. Despite having low levels of tourism development, the area was among Tigray’s most popular travel destination

More than 150 of the thousands of ancient churches and monasteries in Tigray are rock-hewn. Ger‘alta accounts for a big share of these. Its ancient monasteries and churches are made up of a single bedrock and are carved into steep cliff sides.

These sites have preserved thousands of manuscripts for centuries. They are treasure troves of architectural engineering and artistic design.

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