Climbing to Ethiopia's church in the sky

Father Assefa, 64, has climbed a 1,000-foot sheer cliff to reach the Abuna Yemata Guh church every day for 50 years. UST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Max Bearak

Abuna Yemata Guh is one of more than 100 rock-hewn churches in northern Ethiopia, but it's the only one that requires climbing up a 1,000-foot cliff face to reach. Father Assefa, 64, has done it every day for 50 years.

Ethiopia was one of the world's first bastions of Christianity, and the Orthodox Church, of which Abuna Yemata Guh is a part, is one of the religion's oldest sects. The region's arid climate has preserved the church's sixth-century paintings, made from animal fat.

Inside, the sandstone walls are adorned with portraits of the Bible's protagonists as well as depictions of its parables. This painting is attributed to Binyam, the nephew of Abuna, or Father Yemata, the saint from Syria who is said to have carved out the church.

The final stretch to the church's inner sanctum involves walking along a narrow, slanted ledge. Falling would mean certain death.

"The route is blessed," said Father Assefa. "Not one has ever died. Our patron saint saves those who fall with his wind. They are returned to the ledge from halfway down."

Father Assefa's grandfather was also a priest at Abuna Yemata Guh, and generations of priests have been buried among the rocks.

He revels in the age-old traditions, such as ringing the church bells, which are made of stone and echo across the countryside to his parishioners.

"Upon this rock," said Father Assefa, "we are closer to God."

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