Saturday 19 October 2019

Ethiopia's Northern Lights: From rock-hewn churches to surprising coffee ceremonies

Tigray is a hidden world of culture, fascinating food and strong coffee, says Geraldine O'Callaghan

Churches at Lalibela Ethiopia
Churches at Lalibela Ethiopia
Map of Ethiopia
Coffee Ceremony in Tigray, Ethiopia. Photo: Geraldine O'Callaghan
Geraldine O'Callaghan in Tigray
Geraldine O'Callaghan and friend in Tigray, Ethiopia
Inside Abuna Yemata Guh, a church in Tigray, Ethiopia. Photo: Geraldine O'Callaghan
Geraldine climbing to Abuna Yemata Guh in Tigray
Morning procession in Aksum. Photo: Geraldine O'Callaghan
Geraldine O'Callaghan in Lalibella, Ethiopia
Light and Shade: Sunset over the Lalibela region of Ethiopia. The top of the Church of St George can be seen to the left emerging from the rock into which it is carved
Injera in Tigray. Photo: Geraldine O'Callaghan

Geraldine O'Callaghan

I’ll let you in on the little surprise that’s waiting after you climb the final 200 meters to Abuna Yemata Guh church in Northern Ethiopia.

It takes a lot of effort to get here.

Tigray is a region famous for churches carved into the mountain, and because this is one of the hardest to get to, it's one of the best-preserved.

Abuna Yemata Guh is 2,580 meters above sea level. The journey involves a tough yet very enjoyable trek, if you’re the outdoorsy type.

But the views are worth the sweat.

Geraldine climbing to Abuna Yemata Guh in Tigray

At the end of the trek is such a steep climb that a rope and local scout are needed to push and support tourists to get up there. It needs to be done barefoot, as the gaps in the rock are so small that this is the only way you can get a proper grip.

It’s miraculous how people managed to create these hand-carved caves so many hundreds of years ago -actual churches carved into the rock atop of the mountain.

And the surprise? Abuna Yemata Guh dates back to the sixth century, and stepping inside after the climb, you'll find religious wall paintings from the 15th century all still perfectly, brightly coloured.

Inside Abuna Yemata Guh, a church in Tigray, Ethiopia. Photo: Geraldine O'Callaghan

This is because the sunlight can’t reach inside the cave (if you ever make it there, please don’t use a camera flash or touch the paintings as they’ve been there for centuries before us and hopefully will last centuries after us). 

Personally, I relished the chance to act the cat for the day, climbing and using all fours and I sure smiled like a Cheshire cat when I reached the top. 

Tucking into injera

Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, is an hour's flight from Addis.

Taking in the views from the balcony of Wukro Lodge here, two teenage local sisters approached to ask if they could speak with me. They were so cute and curious of my light skin and freckles... and all they wanted from me was to chat and ask me about the world outside Ethiopia. 

I answered their questions with enthusiasm and within minutes they invited me to eat with them. I always grab opportunities like this when travelling, so I humbly accepted and my new friends Meron and Zaid began to teach me how to eat with my right hand only, without using utensils.

Injera in Tigray. Photo: Geraldine O'Callaghan

We all shared from a large plate - a meal of local flatbread called injera and chickpea shiro (stew), which is mildly spicy. I paid great attention as they showed me how to scoop up the shiro using a wrap of injera and then tuck it into my mouth to enjoy.

Meron, they younger of the two, fed me a mouthful of injera from her hand - actually quite the honour in Ethiopia, as it is their way of showing respect and making the guest feel very welcome and important.

They certainly managed to do that. Eating with the two girls was one of the most authentic experiences I had during my time in Ethiopia.

A procession in Askum

Morning procession in Aksum. Photo: Geraldine O'Callaghan

If you travel to Aksum, do it during the second week of the month.

This is when the daily processions happen. Between the 9th and 15th of the month (approx.), thousands of worshippers gather at St. Mary of Zion Church from 4am wearing white linen shawls covering their bodies, and in women's cases, heads.

Why? At around 4:30am, priests and monks emerge carrying the Ark of the Covenant to the centre of the square wrapped in a blue cloth.

Yes, that Ark of the Covenant.

Many Ethiopians are staunchly Orthodox Christian, and in Aksum they believe they are protecting the Biblical Ark - stored in the securely guarded Chapel of the Tablet next to this church at the heart of ancient Aksum.

Map of Ethiopia

The Ark is lifted overhead by one of the priests and paraded around with a procession of thousands of believers all holding candles in the dark morning light, whilst chanting in the ancient language of Ge’ez - an old South Semitic language it is said that angels speak.

I’m not the most religious person in the world, but you’d have to be made of stone not to be touched by such a sight. I held on to my candle and walked in step with the crowd, listening to their chanting and feeling strongly like I belonged to something bigger than myself - even if it’s not religion.

The human connection, or spirituality, touched me right in the gut.

In so many ways we are all the same, I felt, regardless of religion, skin colour, nationality or belief system. We all want happiness, food daily, to grow mentally and emotionally and to see our loved ones thrive.

These are the things I put out to the universe on that morning in Askum, as I’m sure many of those other women who walked alongside me did.

A (strong) coffee ceremony

Coffee Ceremony in Tigray, Ethiopia. Photo: Geraldine O'Callaghan

Considering the wild coffee plant, 'Arabica', originates in Ethiopia, they don’t just make and drink coffee. Oh, no! In true Ethiopian style, they make a ritual out of the whole process. Even if you’re a not coffee lover, you’ll be charmed by this.

First, they set the scene with all the authentic equipment needed (clay pot and mini handless cups). Then, they decorate the floor with plants and grasses, and the person making the coffee (usually the women of the house) is dressed in colourful traditional clothing with local music on in the background.

Once raw beans are placed over open coals to be roasted, the host takes the pan of beans around to every guest wafting the aromas beneath their noses. I don’t love coffee, but this part really gets my mouth watering for the liquid to follow.

Once we all nod and agree that the smell is delicious, our host grinds the beans in a wooden pestle and mortar, before heating the powder in water inside the traditional, sphere-shaped clay pot called a jebena - which has a tall, thin neck and spout.

Once it’s heated, we all get to try a mini cup of the rich brown fluid. 

Let me warn you, it's strong - very strong - but most possibly exactly what you’ll need to keep you alert enough to take in all Ethiopia has to offer.

Getting there

Geraldine O'Callaghan in Lalibella, Ethiopia

Geraldine O'Callaghan (above) travelled as a guest of the Ethiopian Tourism Organisation (

Tours: Covenant Ethiopia Tours offer the same itinerary Geraldine followed ( from $560pp (€482 approx.) based on one to four people sharing a car or minibus, guide and driver. Accommodation, meals, entrance fees and government taxes are all included in the price (but not flights).

Flights: Ethiopian Airlines ( flies direct from Dublin to Addis Ababa - return flights cost Geraldine around €700 for this trip.

Hotels: Wukro Lodge Eco Lodge in Mekele (; from €60 per night); Florida International Hotel in Gondar (+251 94 348-1087; from €55) and the Mountain View Hotel, Lalibela (; from €60).

For local guides, contact Amare Shiferaw (Simien Mountain Guide; or in Lalibela Masresha Misganaw (

Read more:

Ethiopia - A journey to the cradle of humanity

Online Editors

Editors Choice

Also in Life