Carved into the rock face, with a plaster façade, is Abba Yohani Church

Hidden Religion: Abba Yohani and the Clandestine Cave Churches of Ethiopia

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Ethiopia is a land full of ancient relics. For example, the fossil remains of the earliest hominins were found in Ethiopia. The oldest stone tools known to have been intelligently manufactured by human ancestors dating to perhaps 2.5 million years ago were also found in Ethiopia in the Olduvai Gorge. In addition to being the potential birth place of the earliest members of the human genus, Ethiopia is also where one of the earliest African civilizations besides Egypt emerged around 700 BC, the civilization of Aksum.

Abba Yohani Church is carved high in the rock-face of the mountain near Tembein

Abba Yohani Church is carved high in the rock-face of the mountain near Tembein (Credit: ethiopianadventures)

An Ancient Culture With Ancient Churches

In light of being a land of ancient wonders, it makes sense that Ethiopia is home to some of the oldest churches in the world. Ethiopia is famous for its rock hewn churches such as those at Lalibela. These churches were carved out of blocks of solid rock rather than being made of stone blocks cut from a quarry that were later assembled elsewhere. In addition to the famous churches such as the cross-shaped Church of Saint George in Lalibela and the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion located in the city of Aksum, there are hundreds of lesser known rock churches located throughout the remote highlands of Ethiopia. One of these churches is the Abba Yohani church.

The Cliff Churches of Tigray Ethiopia

The Cliff Churches of Tigray Ethiopia ( CC BY ND 2.0 )

Christian Tradition at the Abba Yohani Church

Abba Yohani is a church and monastery built into a cliff side in a remote part of the Tigrai region of Ethiopia. It is far from the more well-known tourist-saturated areas. It is located near the village of Tembein where life goes on much as it has for the past 1600 years. Donkeys are used for transporting goods and most tools and similar items are manufactured by local craftsmen. The social and spiritual center of this village is the church where mass is held and infants are baptized in order to be inducted into the parish community. During mass, traditional Ethiopian hymns are sung and readings are made from the Bible and from prayer books.

Weiner Codex 21 - Ethiopian biblical manuscript, early 18th century

Weiner Codex 21 - Ethiopian biblical manuscript, early 18 th century ( Public Domain )

The prayer books are handwritten and the pages are made of parchment, or animal hide. Books were made with parchment for centuries in the Mediterranean world before paper was introduced from China beginning around the 8th century AD. The priests at this village carry on a book-making tradition going back to the pre-Christian era.

As one attends mass in this little isolated rock church, one gets the impression that little has changed there since Christianity was first introduced to Ethiopia during the 4th century. The church represents an echo of early Christianity and is particularly unique in that it presents a version of Christianity that is non-western and relatively untouched by Greco-Roman thought.

Medhane Alem Kesho cave church, Tigray

Medhane Alem Kesho cave church, Tigray ( CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )

Did Religious Persecution Actually Help Preserve the Ethiopian Church?

Since Abba Yohani is built high on a cliff, it is difficult to access. This hearkens back to a time when churches were under threat and had to be built in remote, easily defended places. Beginning in the Middle Ages, Christian Ethiopia began to experience aggression from Muslim neighbors. At one point in the 10th century, an Ethiopian empress converted to Judaism and tried to suppress Christianity and implement Judaism as the state religion. She ordered the burning and destruction of many churches. Because of this, many Ethiopian Christians felt the need to escape into the highlands in order to practice their religion freely.

Access to the Abba Yohani church is via tunnels and along a ledge with breathtaking views of the area

Access to the Abba Yohani church is via tunnels and along a ledge with breathtaking views of the area (Credit: ethiopianadventures)

Despite facing occasional persecution and opposition, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has had a tremendous influence on civilization and culture in Ethiopia. Much of the art and architecture in Ethiopia was done either by or for the Church. The numerous rock hewn churches and cathedrals are examples of this. The Ethiopian Church was also responsible for most of the education, both secular and religious, that took place in the kingdom of Aksum. Monasteries became centers of learning where many texts on theology, philosophy, and other subjects were stored much as they were in Medieval Europe.

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