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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.

Abba Yohani Church Priest with religious paintings

Abba Yohani Church Priest with religious paintings (Credit: ethiopianadventures)

Because of the libraries and books preserved by the Ethiopian church, many ancient texts have survived the ravages of time which would otherwise have been lost as they were in most of the Mediterranean world. The Book of Enoch, for example, is important for studying the development of Jewish thought and the only copies which survived were those kept by Ethiopian Christian monks.  In addition to art, architecture, and literature, legal and political traditions were also very much influenced by the Ethiopian church. The Fetha Nagast or “Law of the Kings,” was largely based on moral and social teachings of the Church.

Ceiling Fresco at the cave Church of Abuna Yamata Guh

Ceiling Fresco at the cave Church of Abuna Yamata Guh (CC BY-SA 2.0)

History of the Church of Ethiopia

The Church of Ethiopia, according to tradition, goes back to the 4th century when a Christian ascetic by the name of Meropius came to Ethiopia with two young men, Frumentius and Aedesius. Meropius became sick and eventually died, but the two young men who came with him became aids to the Aksumite king. Frumentius eventually went to Alexandria to the Patriarch Athanasius requesting help in evangelizing the kingdom of Aksum. Athanasius consecrated Frumentius as the first bishop of Aksum. After this, Frumentius returned to Ethiopia where he led missionaries and churches in spreading the the faith. What led to the Christianization of Ethiopia however was the conversion of King Ezana (330-356 AD). Once Ezana converted to Christianity, he made it the state religion and, within a few centuries, the church came to dominate the life and culture of the nation.

Ethiopian Orthodox Priest, Tigray, Ethiopia

Ethiopian Orthodox Priest, Tigray, Ethiopia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Until 451 AD, the Ethiopian Church was in direct communion with the universal catholic and apostolic church which included both the western and eastern churches at the time. Fission came in 451 AD at the Council of Chalcedon where the bishops who were in charge of the church in Ethiopia disagreed with the conclusions that the Council of Chalcedon made regarding the relation between the divine and human natures of Christ. This led to a schism separating Christendom into churches which accepted the Chalcedonian creed and those which didn’t.

The Ethiopian Church was under the jurisdiction of the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church until the 20th century. Since the Coptic bishops rejected the Chalcedonian creed, the Ethiopian church became a “non-Chalcedonian church.” There was an attempt by the Roman Catholic Church through Jesuit missionaries to bring the Ethiopian church into agreement with the Chalcedonian creed. This however proved unsuccessful and the Ethiopian church maintained its non-Chalcedonian theology and non-Romish character.

Through the centuries, the Ethiopian Church has been successful in preserving its character and existence both in the onslaught of non-Christian opponents such as Muslim invaders and other Christian groups which have disagreed with its theology. It is this uniquely Ethiopian Christianity which resides within the rock walls of Abba Yohani.

Top image: Carved into the rock face, with a plaster façade, is Abba Yohani Church (Credit: ethiopianadventures)

By Caleb Strom



and Tadesse Tamerat (1970). The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church Faith and Order. Available at:

“The Ethiopian Church.” Standing Conference of Oriental Orthodox Churches. Available at:

“Abba Yohani Monastery in Tembein, Tigrai Northern Ethiopia” by Tigrai Online (2013). Tigrai Online. Available at:

“African Christianity in Ethiopia” by George Emma Ross (2002). The Met. Available at:



Hi All,

This article is exciting I remember an conference within my faith doing an lecture on the History of the churches in Africa. The Talk included Ethiopia.

I can recall growing up in the 80s and the early 90s when the hot bed topic in the news at the time was Apartheid in South Africa and the Freedom of Nelson Mandela from prison. What was said is that before Europe's interference Africa had the Land an Europe had The Bible then in a complete 180 it seemed Europe had the Land and Africa has The Bible.

The shocking thing from this article Europe never brought The Bible to Africa for Africa or rather Ethiopia already had The Bible an The Land.

To the author of this article Caleb thank you for sharing this incredible article about Ethiopias Churches. So until next time everybody else Goodbye!

Caleb Strom's picture


Caleb Strom is currently a graduate student studying planetary science. He considers himself a writer, scientist, and all-around story teller. His interests include planetary geology, astrobiology, paleontology, archaeology, history, space archaeology, and SETI.

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