The red sandstone mountains are home to a number of less known rock churches. Guests are guided through the mountains by specially trained guides from Adigrat, where donkeys are provided to carry their bags (20kg per person per donkey is allowed). The communities own and operate simple guesthouses and receive 55% of the income (ex VAT) for their services. Each guesthouse has accommodation for six guests in three rooms, a roof top terrace, a simple eco-toilet and wash facilities. The community cooks simple but tasty food along with coffee and tea, while bottled drinks – water, beer and soft drinks are available for purchase.
The trekking takes you up onto the sandstone ridges and through the farmed valleys with ample chance to see farming and community activities. There is also a surprising amount of wildlife in these mountains with Gelada Baboons, Hyrax, Jackals among the mammals spotted, and a wonderful selection of birds from sunbirds and little Cordon Bleu to Lammergeyers and Batteleur Eagles.
The trekking season runs throughout the year as for the most part the rainy season this far north only brings showers in the afternoon, and allows treks to be done during the rest of the day. In addition the soil is sandy and the water soon drains away. The best time to trek is in mid August through September and October. But with the wedding season and other celebrations in the communities different times of year bring their unique attractions.
The most westerly guesthouse is at ERAR built on an isolated section of the western escarpment with wonderful views westward to the mountains of Adwa and the Nebulet pillars. It can be accessed from the Adigrat – Axum road via a good gravel road that ends at a village called Rahya, from where it is a 90min walk along the escarpment to Erar. Its also a shorter walk down to the east side of the cliff to a village called KIAT which has many natural springs, lots of fields with all manner of crops and a lovely rock hewn church dedicated to MARYAM.
From Erar it is a 5 hour walk (once back up the escarpment from Kiat) through the valleys to SHIMBRITY. As you get close to Shimbrity there is an interesting rock tunnel that has been carved through the ridge to give villages on the western side access to the lovely rock church of MARYAM BEZUHAN. The trail thereafter hugs the mountain and winds up to the plateau on the top. Shimbrity is the most southerly community-run guesthouse, some 20km north of Hawzien and can also be reached from Gheralta Lodge (using transport to drop you halfway). This is on the western ridge of the Agame Mountains.
The nearest community guesthouse to Shimbrity is GOHGOT, a few hours’ walk to the east tucked under the cliff but above the villages. The nearby rock church of GOHGOT EYESUS, positioned above indigenous woodland at the head of the valley, is roughly 90 minutes’ walk away. Gohgot can be accessed either from Shimbrity, or nearby if taking a transfer by vehicle from the Hawzien area. It’s a 4 – 5 hour walk to Gohgot from the main road starting from the village of Idega Hamus just south of Adigrat.
Gohgot also connects to the highest guesthouse in the area: ENAF
At 3,000m it has stunning views across the Agame massif and its valleys. The walk from Gohgot takes around 6 - 7 hours and goes past some lovely churches – notably DEBRE GIYORGIS, which is a built-up church in the ancient tradition of Debre Damo and Yemrehanna Christos. It is perched on a ledge three-quarters of the way up the escarpment and is a challenging climb up via sturdy ladders. The walk to Enaf has some steep sections on it so you need to be fit. From Enaf it’s a 4 hour walk down the mountain to the Agoro Lodge on the edge of Adigrat.
The guesthouse north of Enaf is CHEHAT - it is one of the more recent additions to the network. There is a great ridge top walk that skirts Adigrat and connects Enaf with Chehat guesthouses. This is a more challenging walk taking some 8 hours, but you will be rewarded with a variety of great views and will pass near the peak of the Agame mountains measured at 3,333 meters in case you want to go for a peak. Chehat is a wonderful site with sweeping views north along a gorge towards DEBRE DAMO. This guesthouse is also easily accessed from the main road that goes north from Adigrat
From Chehat the trail takes you north east to MENYABEITI, along the ridge, through some lovely farmland with villages and across the main road that comes up from Adigrat. You will see the round Amba mountain called Amba Fekada infront. Save some puff for the steep walk up the side of the Amba. Once on top you will see why we sited the Menyebeiti guesthouse here. From here you can see the Debre Damo Amba to the west and the gorges to the east that drop into the Rift Valley.
At the foot of the Amba is a small painting depicting felids (leopards) possibly attacking farmers who are featured ploughing with humpless oxen (the only such paintings in the Horn of Africa). The age of the paintings is unknown, but they are stylistically reminiscent of various panels in eastern Ethiopia and Somaliland, so must presumably be at least 3,000 years old.
Down in the valley is ENDA TEKLE HAYMANOT CHURCH, in the compound of which, are ruins from the Axumite period including pillars and large stone slabs thought by archaeologists to be part of the abandoned town of Ona Adi. Oral history claims these to be the ruins of the Queen of Sheba’s palace, and also the palace where the Ark of the Covenant rested on its way to Axum. In fact the local district is called Gulo Makeda, meaning enclosure of Makeda (the traditional name for the Queen of Sheba).
This location is close to the road and a small town called Fatsi, with easy transport to and from Adigrat.
*An itinerary can be arranged that links the sites with stays at the surrounding lodges and can start or end at either Mekele or Axum (Mekele has cheaper and more regular flights to Addis, Axum links with Gondar and Lalibela).
In the midst of the valleys in the southern part of the Agame Mountains is SEHETA: the most recent guest house. The guest house is just above several farmhouses on the edge of the village of Seheta with lovely views up and down the valley, with its red sandstone cliffs. Guests can enjoy being part of the village here, where they can drop in on a farmers house and see how these hard working but very hospitable farmers live, or trek up the valley to explore.
It is less than 2 hours easy walk from Gohgot, and about 4 hours from Shimbrity.
Enaf is close by but some 300 meters up the mountain, and would probably be a good half day walk. Erar is about 5 hours walk from here through the valleys.
Is possibly the finest of the Agame churches. It has a single intricately carved wooden door that leads to the large spherical interior, which incorporates 12 pillars and is decorated with geometric patterns, carvings and several faded old paintings. A Sabaean inscription in the roof of the Holy of Holies might indicate the church started life as a small rock-carved pre-Christian shrine.
Is carved into a massive rock outcrop and has a cylindrical ceiling incised with swastikas. The church is a really notable one for it architecture and paintings and is set above the wooded slopes of the escarpment at the end of the Gohgot valley.
Is a beautiful rockhewn church with paintings and a fascinating Ge'ez inscription that seems to date the church from the 16th century. A British team have been working with local authorities and the church to uncover paintings and the inscrip- tion, and put measures in place to conserve this lovely church. We have a good relationship with the local community and priests.
Is also an extended cave church, with an interesting rock tunnel carved through the ridge that separates it from the farmland west of the Agame mountains. This is a lovely and welcoming church on the edge of the mountain on which Shimbrity guesthouse is found.
Is a built up church with a wooden roof in the style of Debre Damo. Happily however women are also welcome. It is perched on a ledge 3⁄4 of the way up an escapement in the Seheta area. The route up uses some massive eucalyptus poles lashed together and formed into ladders and some concrete steps more recently added as well as some natural pathway. Its not for the faint hearted! And it’s the same way back down. The church is rather irregular in shape but very attractive and well worth the climb. It does seem that this is one of the remoter forgotten churches of the area!
All churches charge 150 birr per person (less than £5).
Not all will be able to provide receipts, and at times it is not possible to find the priests or key holders.