The guidebooks try to warn you. Staring up at the final few meters of the ascent up to Abuna Yemata Guh, a church carved into the very top of a rock mountain in a remote area of Ethiopia, I remember Lonely Planet's words:
The last two minutes require nerves of steel - our hands are sweating just thinking about it!
Well, I don't have much of a choice now, do I? I already hopped into the car with my new friends Nick and Amy and made the journey out into the dusty Tigray valley on dirt roads that are much more dirt than road. I've already agreed to pay my share of the price for this makeshift guide who seemed to grow magically out of the dust as soon as we stopped our car, as they always do. And then the hike up here, fifty exhausting minutes of vertical climbing in the mid-day heat. I've taken off my shoes and socks in order to have a better foot-grip for climbing the rock face. We've woken up the slumbering priest, who we found simultaneously guarding the key to the church and sleeping in a cave in perched in the sky. I've walked past the old shallow rock tombs which display human skeletal remains, some of which still maintain larges sections of flesh. [Nick, Amy and I debate - how could the flesh still possibly be preserved? The altitude? The dry air?]. Can I really turn back now??
This is me swallowing my fear.
In quarter-steps I approach the rock face and set my intention not to look to my left, towards the two-hundred meter plummet that awaits if I happen to slip. I lean into the rock and place my hands in the shallow indentures. I lift my bare feet into the first of the small footholds. Then I move my right hand. Then left hand. Right foot. Left foot. With what I am sure is too-deliberate movements, I creep up the mountain in the least graceful dance of all time.
As I reach level ground, I am surrounded by nothing but air, but still, there is no room to breathe. It is a rock landing maybe four square feet around, surely I will not stumble and fall off, but at this height, with nothing but certain death awaiting on all sides, I am too afraid to stand. I crouch and use my hands to walk over to the ledge.
Twenty feet separate me from my final goal of the ancient prayer-room. This very last push involves a ledge measuring maybe thirty inches across. On one side a flat rock wall. On the other, a drop I will not even take a peak at, for fear of being overcome by vertigo. I lean into the wall with such intensity, a passive observer might think I was having a love affair with this fine piece of volcanic cliff. I shuffle along until I finally am able to dip into a cave. Exhale. Safety.
The priest unlocks the door. Nick is first to enter.
"Oh my God" he says.
I dip my head and enter the cave. Nick's exclamation reflects my immediate impressions as well. For at this height, at the top of a mountain that you must risk life and limb to climb, the ancient peoples of Ethiopia have carved out an unexpectedly large and ornately painted church chamber. The walls are adorned with colored paintings of Jesus and Mary. Portraits of the apostles adorn the ceilings. How? Why? HOW??
We sit in silence. Amy asks how old is the Church.
"Fourth century" our guide says.
We are floored. Speechless.
I spot an old book lying on the ground amidst a pile of different sized texts. I pick it up and flip through the pages. Old Semitic writing stares back at me on pieces of Torah-like parchment. "Ge-ez" my guide explains, an ancient language, written on animal skin.
"How old is this book?"
"Same as church."
"This book is one-thousand, seven-hundred years old?!?!?"
"Yes" the guide says impassively. The priest who cannot understand our English conversation nods his head in apathy.
My fingers take a decidedly gentler approach to the pages of the book, which our guides tells us is the Old Testament. I hand it over to Amy who turns through the pages in awe before placing it back on the pile of seventeen-hundred year old books. The priest lifts another of the texts and, taking it out of its leather case, shows us a beautiful painting of Mary and child that adorns the first page. The priest offers to chant a few lines. We listen in silence. Then we sit.
We hate to leave, but Amy speaks up and we agree... it's time to go.
"That was incredible - one of the highlights of our trip" Nick tells me. The same goes for me, one of the more memorable and magical experiences in eight months of memorable and magical experiences. Still at the top of the mountain, I imagine how I might translate this past hour into words and sentences so I might share it with my friends and family. Impossible, but I resolve to try.
Of course, to be able to do that, first I must get down...