Yemrehana Krestos was an Ethiopian king of the Zagwe dynasty who reined during the 11th century late Aksumite period. He is credited with building an ancient church within a natural hilltop cave about 42 kilometers from the city of Lalibela. The excursion was an additional expense ($70US) for transportation and entrance fees, but it was certainly worth the trip, as not many tourists get the opportunity to experience a place of such historical and cultural significance.
1: The Yemrehana Krestos church itself is relatively small in size. But at almost 1000 years old, it is in remarkable condition. It is one of the most holy places in Ethiopia, and thousands of Ethiopians make pilgrimage to this location. I was told by my guide that the timbers were carried to the location from Jerusalem, but I’ve not been able to confirm this anywhere. This church predates the rock-hewn churches in Lalibela by several hundred years, and served as a model for their construction. Like all historic churches I visited in Ethiopia, this one is still active.
2: A protective wall and guard building have been built at the mouth of the cave to protect the church. A weathered man carrying an antique Italian rifle stood in constant vigil outside of the entrance. He demanded to see our permission to enter, which was purchased at the base of the hill.
3: Four stout columns support the interior the church. A curtain conceals the ‘Holy of Holies’, a special location in each Ethiopian church that only priests are allowed to enter. It contains that church’s holy relics, including a replica of the Ark of The Covenant.
4. The most beautiful view of the church interior is of the vaulted main ceiling, as well as the decorated arches that extend from the main columns that support it. The environment of the cave has done an excellent job of preserving all aspects of this revered place.
5: A resident priest proudly poses with a candle and one of the holy relics of the church, an Aksumite cross.
6: Behind the church itself is an area for worshippers to gather. It includes a special chair for the priests. Traditional drums and prayer sticks lie in the foreground. A ridge in teh cave behind this area has yet to reveal its secret.
7: Upon closer inspection, you discover dozens of mummified remains. Some are thought to belong to the builders of the original church during the 11th century. Others are pilgrims who came to the church to make it their final resting place.
8: The remains extend back into the cave several feet, and are in varying condition depending on location and age. It’s a grizzly sight to behold, but these people considered it a great honor to be interred here.
9: I found an old religious painting made on the stucco between two timbers on a support building near the church. The remains of other nearby paintings had been rubbed out by human hands and could not be discerned.
10: I was told by my guide that this is the tomb of Yemrehana Krestos himself, and judging by the adornment and prominent location, I have no reason to doubt this assertion.