Ethiopia has a long history of building sacred structures in hidden, isolated places to protect them from conflict and test the faith of worshippers. Throughout the country, churches can be found secreted away on distant mountain-tops, burrowed into caves, and carved into the sides of cliffs. Although a few of the greatest of these have become well known, a great, untold number remain familiar only to the locals who frequent them.
During my Peace Corps service in Yechila, Ethiopia in 2015, I became aware that one of these hidden churches was located in the mountains above the city. After returning to Yechila with my wife and father-in law, Lance Harrison, in December 2018, I was hopeful that we could visit the place for ourselves, known as the Church of Dungar.
Setting off before sunrise, the three of us hiked several hours into the foothills where we met Alene Tesfay, an old friend I had met as Peace Corps Volunteer. Leaving from his stone farmhouse, Alene guided us to the base of the Newhy Mountains. Looking up, we saw a sheer cliffside dotted with cactus. Anxious to reach our destination after several more hours hiking in hundred degree heat, Alene informed us that atop this cliff we would find the Church of Dungar.
We paused and waited as Alene tried to secure permission for the second half of our journey from government officials and the clergy who maintain the site. An hour later, we were met by a priest who agreed to allow our passage, under the condition we would not be allowed into the church’s inner sanctum.
With Alene, the priest, and a few local congregants, we hiked upwards, following a stone pathway etched into red stone by generations of pilgrims before us. At the top of a steep ascent, we were instructed to remove our shoes to emulate the tradition of the prophets of the Old Testament. Barefoot, we continued until we reached the church itself, a humble structure built by adherents who had trekked construction materials from villages far away in the valley below.
Fashioned directly into the cliffside and built around a natural cave that burrows into the mountain, the church is only accessible by a narrow doorway along the edge. Inside, we found a foyer of windows looking out to the valley below, and doorway marking the entrance of the cave. Our guides instructed us that beyond that door, deep into the cavern resides the “holy of holies.” This sacred room is meant to emulate the pattern of the ancient Israelites’ biblical temple. Shrouded in mystery, the holy room is known only by the priests.
As the first foreigners to visit the Church of Dungar, we reflected with our guides on the physical strength, faith, and determination required to build it. More sobering still is the reality that hundreds of similar churches exist throughout Ethiopia, built by the same exhaustive conviction and grit. Quietly unbeknownst to the outside world, each one testifies of the faith of a nation and the determination of its people to secure what they hold most sacred.