20 February 2018, The Tablet

Every day, this priest climbs a sheer cliff to get to church

The church, Abuna Yemata Guh, in northern Ethiopia is carved out a cliff above a 250 metre drop

Every day, this priest climbs a sheer cliff to get to church

Every day, this Ethiopian priest, Fr Haylesilassie Kahsay, walks for two hours and then climbs a sheer cliff to reach his church. 

Abuna Yemata Guh in northern Ethiopia is carved into the side of a cliff, complete with colourful frescos and two cupolas, above a 250 metre drop and accessible only by climbing the cliff and traversing narrow ledges. The climb includes one 10 metre section of sheer vertical cliff. It is tradition to scale it without shoes or a rope. 

The church was built by St Abuna Yemata, one of the nine saints who came out of Syria, Constantinople or Rome to bring Christianity to Ethiopia in the late fifth century. It features in a Lonely Planet Traveller guide of inspiring destinations, and now the priest has been filmed making his daily journey to work by Charlie Northcott, Kalkidan Yibeltal and Berihu Lilay for the BBC World Service.

"I do not get afraid when I climb to the church because I climb every day. It is very difficult, but I find it manageable," said Fr Haylesilassie, who belongs to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which is the biggest Oriental Orthodox church.

"I wake up very early in the morning. And then I work in the house until 6am, when my lunch is prepared. When I leave home I am very happy because I am walking towards St Abuna Yemata. I am happy from my heart."

It takes nearly two hours to walk to the bottom of the cliffs. He spends his time on the mountain studying ancient texts. 

"I am happy reading my book for the whole day. Because it is very quiet here, there really isn't anyone to talk to. You communicate with God and share your secrets with him. And then your mind becomes free and happy."

He continued: "Your mind travels to whatever you choose to focus on. If you read a spiritual book, and understand the secret, it brings you joy. If you read and understand the word of God, it tastes as sweet as honey."

The church is also a burial place for the priests who have had its cure over the centuries. 

"So far nobody has fallen, because the nine saints have kept them safe. The saints that live in these mountains have delivered them."

Fr Haylesilassie remains there until sunset, when he locks the church and heads home. "The reason why I became a priest is to teach the people what I have learned, so they can walk in my footsteps. God's deeds are perfect."


(Pic and video embed courtesy of BBC World Service)

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