Before I start writing this blog I would like to write short about the Ethiopian salaries and also the cost level in Ethiopia. During our stay this is level of salaries we have been told about: a small scale farmer maybe make 500 birr (26 USD) a month, a security guard at a hotel makes 1000-1300 birr (55 – 72 USD) a month and a truck driver that drives all over Northern Ethiopia makes 2000 birr (110 USD) a month. In Debark area a sheep costs about 600 birr (33 USD) and a draft pint in a local bar costs 10 birr (50 cents USD), but of course everything that gets close to tourists costs a bit more. I think we tourists should have the local price level in mind when we travel and trade with locals, and especially when it comes to tipping. Even if we think a tip is small compared to the price level we are used to at home we have to remember that a tip of 50 birr (2,5 USD) is 8 % the cost of a sheep or 5 beers in a local bar. Norwegian price level is pretty high, but if someone gave me a tip of 5 beers in Norway it would be equal to a tip of more than 50 USD.
Ok, then it is time for the blog. After a beautiful drive north from Lalibela we reached the Tigray region of Ethiopia. On the drive north the landscape and building techniques changed.
Close to Lalibela most people lived in round mud huts, while up in Tigray most of the houses were square and built of rocks.
The landscape in Tigray is also amazing, and what makes this an even more fascinating area to visit, are the rock-hewn churches that are cut into the red rock in the area.
After reading about these churches, we found some that we wanted to visit. First stop was the 10th century Abraha Atsbeha church. It was carved out of a small cliff face and was only free from the rock on three sides, only attached to the rock on the back side. On the front of the church, the Italians (back in the days) had attached a newer section to the church to show the locals they were not Muslims. From the outside it looked really strange.
To enter the churches in Tigray costs 150 birr per person per church (so for the two of us it is equal to half a sheep in Debark) and this price was posted on the entrance of the Abraha Atsbeha church. When we arrived the priest was sleeping outside the church in the shade of a tree, and a local boy woke him up for us. As we were looking around in the church he fell asleep on a chair. After visiting the church we were going to pay for the ticket, and he seemed really upset that we would like a recipe. We do not know if that was because he could then not take the money himself or if it made him embarrassed because it turned out that he could not write. Fair enough. Espen wrote the recipe. After paying our fee the priest asked if he could have some money too. We replied “no”, as we had paid our fee to the church, and we assumed that he, as a priest, will be paid from the church. It could be that this assumption is wrong, of course, and maybe the Ethiopian church takes the whole entry fee and does not pay their priests at all?
In Hawsien we spent the night in a local hotel and eat dinner at Gheralta restaurant in town. The restaurant was owned by a young local man who used to work as a cook in a hotel in Lailibela until he started his own restaurant in his home town. It is a quiet town, and he hoped for some more tourists to come to visit this area of Ethiopia. Please do if you’re there. It’s the best restaurant in town. To get to the Abuna Yemata Guh church we had to drive through the small town of Megab where we stopped in the city center to buy some bread. While we were parked there, we were approached by some young men who said they worked for the local guide association, and they asked if we would like to hire them as guides for the day. We kindly declined the offer.
As we got to the end of the road close to the church we had to park somewhere, and a local old man said we could park on his property under a small tree. Together with the old man was another local farmer in worn out clothes and they told us he could be our scout. We did not really know where the path went up to the church and thought it would be nice to give this man a job for 2-3 hours and we agreed on a price of 50 birr witch is not too bad, but less than the 280 birr that the guide association would charge.
The path went through some plowed fields, over a dry river, and then it started to climb up the hill. We got to a tree where we could see there was an empty seat. Our “scout” got a bit stressed, and he started to call down to someone at one of the farms. The ticket man had left his seat and was not to be found. The “scout” knew a few English words, and we asked if it would be possible to pay on the way back down because we would like to do the walk up the hill before the sun got too high in the sky and the temperature too high for Norwegians. He agreed and we walked on, but every now and then he stopped and shouted something down to the small village where someone replied to him. Then we got to another tree where three men were resting in the shade, and our “scout” stopped for a chat. After a few minutes a young priest came up the path to the tree and he spoke better English and explained that the man with the tickets was on his way. Some minutes after the priest, the ticket man arrived and we could pay our two tickets, a total of 300 birr (or half a sheep).
As we continued the walk up the hill, the priest came along with us, and also two of the “scout’s” friends. We thought they might come along up to the church to pray. When we got to a section of the path that turned into rock climbing, the priest, our scout, and the two other men explained where we should put our feet and hands (which wasn’t very complicated). Then we should probably have realized that the two last members of the group where not going up to pray, but also wanted something from us. We should have told them to turn around, but we did not say anything.
After a bit of climbing we came up to a lower stage of the church were there was a small cave turned into a tomb for monks and priests that deserved to be buried in such a holy place. From just outside the cave you could see the remains of human bones, and on the skeletons on top there was still some dried and cracked skin. Really, really strange to see as the graves I am used to see are covered with grass, and in front of the burial stone, the family plant flowers. Here it was just a pile of skeletons where the “latest arrival” is piled on top of the others.
The Abuna Yemata Guh church is carved into the red sandstone rock pinnacles that stand out as huge towers, and when we got to the top of the crack you could see how far down it was on the other side. When I get too much “air” around me, like up by this church, with a free fall of 100 meters, and we are 300 meters over the valley floor, I kind of freeze. So I did not go the last meters up where you have to walk a few meters on a one meter wide ledge over this 100 meter free fall to get to the entrance door of the church.
Espen and the rest of our group of one priest and by now three “scout’s” walked up the last bit while I was sitting and enjoying the silence and the incredible view.
How anyone come up with the idea to build a church in a place like this I don’t know, and what did it take to carve it into the rock in such surroundings about a 1000 years ago? They could handle the height a lot better than me for sure.
Espen was fascinated about how they were able to build (or carve) this church, and when asking, the reply from the priest was that God made the church and put it in this location. From an Orthodox Christian point of view that is how this church is made, but to an engineer from Northern Europe this is not much of an explanation. Would explain the tolerance for heights, though...
On the walk back down our group stopped again at the second tree. The priest told us this is a holly olive tree and therefore we had to take a rest. That is what people do at holy trees. While obeying the local traditions and we had our rest, the priest took up the question about payment once more. We explained that we had agreed a price with our one “scout” at the parking before we started our hike. The priest said we had tree “scout’s”, and we should pay them all. We said we had never made a deal with the two last “scout’s”, they had just tagged along without even asking or making an agreement with us. And why would the two of us need three “scout’s” to walk up a hill? After all we are still able to walk on our two legs and use our eyes to look for places to put our feet and hands. Then the priest asked for a tip for himself since he had unlocked the church for us. Our reply was that we had already paid 300 birr to see the church, and we thought that he as a priest would get his salary from the church. He then continued to tell us about his family and how poor they were, and he had a wife and children to take care of. I know we have more money than this priest, and compared to us, he is poor. But compared to the local farmer we had hired as a “scout” in the first place, he had new sneakers, nice pants with no holes or patches on them, a nice shirt, a jacket, and a mobile phone. Since he had been a nice guy, explained things and translated for us, until he started asking for money, we thought we could give him 10 birr as that was the smallest change we had. He looked really disappointed and as he was holding up the 10 birr he said in English that other tourists would pay him 50-100 birr in tip. The questions about money continued and we tried to explain to the priest and made him translate to the “scout’s” that the way they were dealing with tourists is not the way to go. When we first got up to the church the priest said he hoped we would tell our friends about the churches in Tigray so more tourists would visit them. We now told him we would tell about all the hassle and greedy priests. And if the “scout’s” want to do business with tourist they have to agree on a price first, not just tag along and demand to be paid.
Our first “scout” followed us back to the car to get his payment for his 3 hours of work. As we were walking, he asked Espen if he could have Espen’s trousers, and when Espen said no he asked if he could have Espen’s shoes. You could see he really needed them, but Espen also needs his shoes. By now we had enough of questions about giving money and giving things. We paid him the money we had agreed on, said thanks for his help and left.
Back at the Gheralta Resturant we needed a cold drink and a coffee to digest all the hassle and appreciate a local running an honest business. In the restaurant we meet a German couple, and it turned out they had visited Abuna Yemata Guh the day before and they had also got in a discussion about money with the priest and the number of “scout’s” they had to pay for. He had also told them about his poor family. A week after leaving Tigray we meet another overlander that visited the church after us, and he had had the same discussion with the priest about the number of “scout’s” and giving tip when you already paid a pretty steep entry fee according to Ethiopian standards. When we meet other travelers and talked about these churches it is sad that what we remember most vividly is hassle and begging priests.
After visiting two churches in Tigray we had enough of the greedy priests and left this beautiful area and headed to Aksum. We would have liked to visited more sights in the area, but it was just too much hassle. We hope that one day the church and the priests realize that the way they behave is bad for their reputation. If they do not like to show their churches to tourists, it is better to say so, but if they want tourist’s money they should also have to behave in a better way. I do understand that people in Ethiopia beg for money from tourists because we have so much more than them. But I expect a different behavior from a priest, maybe that is my mistake. In my opinion they do not behave as a priest should. The priests in Tigray behave worse than the beggars on the street. Axum, considered the holiest city in Ethiopia, was our next stop. The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion is said to house the biblical Ark of the Covenant and is an important destination for pilgrimage. We, however, visited Axum because we were more interested in its earlier history. From about 400 BC to 10th century AD, Axum was a trading power and ruled the region.
The kings of Axum had some incredible obelisks made to put on top of their tombs. The Great Stelae is 33 meter tall and weighs 520 tons, but now it lay broken in pieces on the ground.
It is believed the stelae fell and broke under construction. Beside the stelaes, tombs, and some palace ruins, we also saw the Axum Rosetta stones. The Ezana stone is from around 350 AD inscribed in three languages; Sabaean, Ge’ez and Ancient Greek. Beside a few people that wanted to be our guides or sell us something, but respected our “no”. There was no hassle in Axum and that was great after visiting the churches in Tigray. After a couple of interesting days in Axum it was time to leave northern Ethiopia and drive south towards Simien Mountains.