Petros and Paulos, Ethiopia
November 04, 2003
The above photo shows Petros and Paulos Melehayzenghi, east of the Wukro-Adigrat road, Tigray, north Ethiopia. The age of this and other Ethiopian Coptic churches that are carved into solid rock is unknown. Nearly all were excavated before the 16th century AD, and must post-date the conversion of Ethiopia to Christianity around 350 AD. The archeologist David Buxton infers that nearby Medhane Alem Adi Kasho church (see link below) dates from the 10th or 11th century AD.
Petros and Paulos isn’t truly rock-hewn because only the sanctuary is cut into the rock, the rest of the church is built out onto a ledge. Reaching the church involves a vertiginous climb up footholds. Why were these churches situated in such inaccessible locations? It must have been to protect the priests and parishioners from some danger. This and other rock-hewn churches of the region serve agricultural communities, which raise cows, goats, and donkeys and farm wheat, barley, and tefe (a grass-like grain used to make injera, the bread-like pancake that is a staple of Ethiopians’ diets). This part of Ethiopia lies at an elevation of over 2000 m above sealevel and has a pleasant climate. The church is cut into the Enticcio sandstone of Paleozoic (Ordovician?) age, which grades from an arkosic and conglomeratic (fluviatile) base upwards into clean quartz arenite, showing dune crossbeds (aeolian). The sandstone is well enough indurated to hold up and allow paint to remain but weak enough that it can be cut into without too much difficulty.