By MICHAEL SNYDER
I had already spent the last few hours watching Haftay hopscotch up the gravel path toward whatever it was that lay on the other side of the ridge. My guide, Mulualem Gebremedhin, and I had spent most of the day — the first of three we would spend hiking together in eastern Tigray on Ethiopia’s northern border — lagging several steps behind Haftay, a local villager accompanying us on the first leg of our trip.
Haftay sang tunelessly as he lunged on long, sinewy legs and struck brisk, almost yogic poses — mostly, I think, for my benefit. He skipped up the path in the same flimsy plastic shoes that practically everyone wears in that part of Ethiopia (opaque, brightly colored jellies), and every so often cracked a joke at me in Tigrayan. I nodded dumbly; Haftay and Mr. Gebremedhin, who goes by the name Mulat, laughed.
“I love this guy, he’s crazy,” Mulat said.
The air was dry and dusty in early May, when the hard red soil waits for rain that may or may not come by June. We were already more than 8,000 feet above sea level and still climbing toward the escarpment. A work crew crushed large stones into small ones, presumably to pave the road winding up the hillside from the city of Adigrat in the valley below. Three men shoveled the stones into a large truck, heaving in rhythmic unison to pass the time. As the path wound higher, its edges became ragged until it faded to dust at the top of the ridge. Haftay had led us, quite literally, to the end of the road.
We stopped to rest while Haftay, with energy far exceeding his 50 years, continued to pose and joke and sing. I asked Mulat what Haftay — whose full name is Haftay Gidey Welihet — was singing.
“Oh,” he said with a shrug, “he’s making it up. Something about Adigrat.”
His timing was appropriate. We could see the town, although aside from the curve of a silver church dome — a burnished thumbnail of light in the valley behind us — it was hardly distinguishable from the ground. We’d come to an edge of Ethiopia. From Adigrat and the surrounding plateaus, the highlands drop southeast into the Danakil Depression, among the lowest points on earth. Just 22 miles north lies the long-embattled Eritrean border, and beyond that the Red Sea coast. Due west is the city of Aksum, with its 1,000-year-old granite monoliths and the chapel that, according to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, houses the ark of the covenant.
For most visitors, Aksum is the northern point in the so-called Historic Circuit, a rough circle inscribed on the ancient volcanic dome of the Ethiopian highlands. The circuit contains the stars of the country’s nascent tourism industry: the celebrated rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, the source of the Blue Nile at Lake Tana, the medieval castle complex at Gondar and the Unesco-protected Simien Mountains National Park, known as “The Roof of Africa.”
Although Adigrat and the ancient cluster of churches carved into the surrounding cliffs lie just a couple of hours from Aksum by minibus, few travelers along the Historic Circuit venture into eastern Tigray, preferring instead to hop among Aksum, Gondar and Lalibela on cheap internal flights.
The churches here are not nearly as impressive as the monuments in those more popular towns, but their age, their relative isolation from tourism and the virtually untouched scenery that surrounds them lend a distinctive air of mystery, even sanctity.
Before reaching any of the churches (Mulat and I did not enter one until the final day of our trek), we continued along the narrow track between fallow fields and makeshift traps for wild fowl, arriving at the Enaf community lodge by early afternoon. Perched high on a bluff nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, the lodge overlooked another valley to the south: a serpentine patchwork of fields in green and dun, confined by steep walls of red sandstone and plateaus that push out like coral reefs, crowned here and there by flat-topped stone houses and silvery stands of eucalyptus swaying like anemones under the shadows of clouds.
The Enaf lodge was built in 2010 by Tesfa Tours (the name comes from Tourism in Ethiopia for Sustainable Future Alternatives), an organization founded as a nonprofit and now operating as the country’s most prominent community tourism company. Tesfa began its first projects in a cluster of villages outside Lalibela in 2003, expanding in 2010 to four villages in eastern Tigray.
With increasing international interest in Ethiopia as a destination, both the villages in Tigray and outside Lalibela have seen a steady rise in visitors. Mark Chapman, an Englishman who founded the company, has begun the process of expanding the Tigray program into five more villages, but for now Tesfa’s four Tigray lodges attract a modest 200 visitors annually (compared to the 1,000-plus visitors who pass through the Tesfa lodges outside Lalibela).
So it’s no surprise that I was the only guest on that first night. When we arrived at Enaf, the local family tending to the lodge that day greeted us with cups of thick, bittersweet coffee (coffee, I learned the next day, is always served in threes, perhaps my favorite Ethiopian tradition). I spent the rest of the afternoon on the roof reading in near silence, interrupted only by Heuml, an 11-year-old boy from the village who beat me over and over again at a game of jacks played with pebbles. A donkey wandered into the courtyard of the lodge and Haftay continued to sing as I watched him descend to his home in the valley. Heuml, far quieter, seemed to speak in suspirations; when I asked his name, he used a long stick to scratch its letters into the dust.
That night, Mulat and I dined on fresh injera and shiro, the sour fermented flatbread and simple bean stew that are the staples of the Ethiopian diet during the vegetarian Lenten period preceding the Orthodox Church’s Easter celebrations. The Tesfa lodges have neither electricity nor running water, so we enjoyed our home-cooked meal and reasonably cold bottles of beer by candlelight while listening to the wind cut across the cliffs. Walking to my room, I saw white flashes under a starless sky, lighting the thunderclouds that opened silently over the Red Sea to the north.
“The white flag means it’s a bar,” Mulat told me, pointing to a small house surrounded by prickly pears and eucalyptus that looked more or less exactly like every other house we had passed. At 10 a.m., about two hours into our second day of hiking, we’d emerged onto the valley floor. The rocky soil atop the plateaus supports only grasses, grains and legumes, but even 100 feet below, bushes of prickly pears grow 8 feet high and stalks of aloe tower 12 feet or more over the stone-lined paths. On the more fertile valley floor, farmers plant their fields with garlic, onion, corn and cabbage.
Inside the bar, a clutch of laborers hefted brown clay goblets overflowing with murky soam, a lightly fermented drink brewed in nearly every household in the region, either from barley, millet, sorghum, maize or wheat. On Sundays, whole villages gather to drink together, rotating from household to household over the course of weeks. In the troubled days of the Derg — the repressive military regime that governed Ethiopia and Eritrea, then a single nation, from 1974 to 1987 — most people in Tigray allied themselves with revolutionary associations like the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front. (The T.P.L.F would later become the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, the party that still rules the country.)
In villages like this one, revolutionaries would use these Sunday gatherings as covers for political meetings. If the military or police authorities interrupted, the villagers would explain simply: “Soa Sambat” — Sunday soam.
In Tigray, contemporary turmoil and ancient tradition tend to nest like this, one inside the other. It was from its base in Tigray that the Aksumite Kingdom reached its fourth-century apogee, stretching across the Red Sea into southwestern Arabia. And it was from here that King Ezana first declared Christianity his state religion in 330 A.D., fully half a century before Rome. In 1868, the British Expedition to Abyssinia passed through Adigrat on the way toward Lake Tana. Thirty years later, Italy’s Abyssinian campaign met its final defeat in the Tigrayan town of Adwa, between Aksum and Adigrat, the same town where Meles Zenawi, the late prime minister and freedom fighter, was born in 1955.
Tigray was also, until barely a decade ago, the site of a costly border war with Eritrea. Though violence mostly ended following a peace agreement in 2000, the road that I traveled between Aksum and Adigrat still marks the southern border of a State Department restricted travel zone, perhaps one explanation for the relative dearth of travelers here. You would never know that sleepy Adigrat, hunched quietly beneath its rampart cliffs, had so recently seen United Nations peacekeeping troops, but Mulat said he remembered well the sounds of bombs falling and the unsilent flashes in the night sky.
Yet little if any of this modern tumult registers on the landscape, subsumed (though certainly not forgotten) in the sheer physical and temporal scale of the place. More recently, a tentative optimism has begun to emerge, the firm hope that development and prosperity may finally reach the region. Roads creeping slowly into the remote interior villages, like the one we followed to Enaf on our first day, are but one sign of change. Near the bar where we stopped on our second day, a substantial school building was nearing completion. Later that day, our second village guide pointed out sites for planned hydroelectric dams that will, at least in theory, supply these agricultural communities, long vulnerable to drought, with access to water throughout the year.
On that second day, Mulat and I hiked for seven hours past children playing in fields and, disconcertingly, at the edges of cliffs. We walked past humble churches dwarfed by the mountainsides that abutted them and hiked up and over a plateau into another eucalyptus-scented valley, where we stopped for a lunch of roasted barley with a sweet and smoky sauce.
Our host, Giday Gebre, chatted happily while she poured soam into plastic cups. After lunch, she set to the elaborate ceremony of preparing coffee: lighting incense, roasting the fresh beans over open coals, wafting the heavy brown aroma across the room, pounding the beans into powder with a high-sided mortar and pestle, brewing the grounds in the bulbous clay pot and pouring each of us three cups, right to the brim.
Ms. Gebre told us about a visit she had made once to a church where the nuns told all the coffee drinkers that they were sinners and would go to hell. Ms. Gebre said she would give up coffee when she died.
Later that afternoon, after another steep climb, Mulat and I arrived at the Erar lodge, built at the edge of a cliff that drops 1,300 feet straight down to the terraced fields below. When the rains come, he told me, these fields would turn green and the obscuring dusty haze would lift to reveal the distant peaks of the Simien Mountains spearing the southern horizon.
Thus far, Mulat and I had yet to step inside a church. On our way to Erar we had walked by one of the cave chapels, tucked behind a nondescript white building, but the priest in possession of the only key was away at the time. The only other church nearby was the fourth-century Maryam Kiat in Kiat Village. We could reach it, Mulat told me, if we started walking before dawn.
So we began our third day in darkness, the cliffs in gray scale beneath the moon. For a while, we walked in silence, eyes on the ground as we edged along narrow shelves of rock barely a meter wide. Eventually, the cliff chats began to call and the sky started to turn pale. As the sun rose, we descended through a steep gorge toward Kiat’s amphitheater of green terraces. Near the bottom, an old man dressed in white smiled at me and offered his hand in greeting, back of the hand toward me so I wouldn’t touch the rock dust coating his palms.
“Almost there,” he said, and nodded toward the church.
Past small plots green with garlic shoots and stalks of corn, an unassuming stone building leaned against the cliff face. Two men in shabby white shawls stood alongside the doorway. Just inside, a turbaned priest read in Ge’ez — Ethiopia’s liturgical language — from a leather-bound Bible. Beside him, a low opening led into the church’s dim, high-vaulted interior, carved from the rock more than 1,000 years ago.
Inside, Mulat showed me the drums used in Ethiopian Masses He explained that their two faces represent the cheeks of Christ, and that the ropes of animal hide that pull those surfaces taut represent the flayed flesh of his back. Mulat lifted a cloth to reveal paintings of St. George and the Virgin Mary. A young priest stood in the door to watch us: we were the only ones there.
It was Holy Thursday on the Ethiopian Orthodox calendar and a small group had gathered near the base of the steps that lead up to the church. Two old women — hair braided into rows over their scalps and flaring at the neck, small crosses tattooed in dark blue ink on their foreheads — repeatedly prostrated themselves, then stood, tossing their palms over their shoulders, an Abrahamic gesture of humility and faith.
The sun had risen high enough to flood the valley with light, but Kiat remained dark and cool in the shadow of its cliff. Mulat and I began our walk back toward the gorge. The steep path carried a surprising flow of traffic: women climbing up with oversize bundles lashed to their backs and old men in white robes using walking sticks to negotiate the rocky terrain. They were climbing, like us, to reach the road.
Really just another gravel path, albeit a wider and flatter one than we had started on with Haftay two days before, this road, in the year since it was built, had already spawned a cluster of shops selling coffee, tea, bread and snacks. Men, women and children waited with chickens and goats and produce they would take into the nearest towns on cramped blue-and-white buses.
With our own bus ride back to Adigrat, Mulat and I inscribed another, far smaller circle on the landscape, another historic circuit that, who knows, might soon be absorbed into the larger one.
“Almost there,” the man had told me as we came into Kiat. The same could be said for eastern Tigray.
For now, though, most of the region’s many treasures remain, like Maryam Kiat, draped in shadow, hidden in the folds of the cliffs.