ABUNA YEMATA GUH—Ten feet above me on the 600-foot cliff face, the barefoot, buck-toothed monk beckons and grins. He’s another one who looks to be nearing 80, but the sun is so strong and feels so close to us that he is probably no older than 50. Anyway, he doesn’t know his age. A blue-eyed, black-skinned Ichabod Crane shambling up sheer rock, his limbs are swaddled in white rags. He carries a pared branch as a staff, which he waves around casually as if he is not dangling above a 50-story free fall.
Abuna Yemata Guh, the church carved into the rock at the top of the cliff, is named for a shadowy fifth-century saint. Abuna means “priest,” and Yemata is one of nine who is believed to have fled persecution elsewhere in the Roman Empire. The Ethiopians call these nine foreigners Syrian, because they were white. Guh, means “sunrise.” Ethiopians say that from the summit you can see where the world begins. I’ve made much easier climbs than this one wearing a harness. If the monk, my driver-cum-guide Yonas, and I were climbing in the United States, we would be clipped to each other and to the rock.”Don’t look down,” Yonas says, helpfully.
I don’t. I realize, in the thinning air, that I am risking my life to reach a church. I laugh at the absurdity. I grew up as the skeptical child of an Episcopal priest in the Philadelphia suburbs. I resented church and all that Sunday entailed. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in God. I believed in something. But I was afraid to believe too much. I feared that God would come down from heaven and ask me to do something painful and against my will. To a child’s mind—and my father’s—that meant being a nun. We visited one of my father’s best friends sometimes, Sister Pia. She lived in a cloister. I only saw her through a grate. It looked like jail. In that exchange, or any that God mandated, I would be forced to relinquish myself to a divine and mercurial will.
Eventually, a friend offered a different way to consider God’s will. “Has it ever occurred to you that God might work through your will?” she asked me. “Your will and God’s will might be the same.” She meant that what I wanted to do might be what God wanted me to be doing. That baffled me.
This ascent feels too charged, too laden with memory. I grip the cliff and keep my mind on the next foothold. Fear can be focusing. We scramble up and on until we reach a rocky saddle wide enough to rest. I notice the mouths of two different caves. Gasping for breath, I peer into one and pull back. It’s layered with human skulls. I look closer and note rib cages and femurs poking through rotten cloth of old rags that look very much like those the monk accompanying us is wearing.
The cave’s a sacred burial ground, Yonas explains. When a monk or priest dies, his brethren carry the dead man up this cliff. For centuries, these unburied bodies have been picked clean by buzzards. I’ve seen this rite elsewhere. In Congo, for instance, pygmies don’t bury their dead. They wrap them beneath a tree in the forest. The idea is that the earth is too sacred to take in human dead.
“You climb with dead bodies?” I ask Yonas to ask the old monk. A loud, cold wind licks the rock. My legs are still shaking.
“Not just the dead,” he replies. “Mothers must climb this cliff too.” He continues, “They must baptize their babies less than 40 days after the baby is born.”
With feet firmly planted, I allow myself to look back where we’ve come from, imagining a mother, days after giving birth, hauling her newborn and herself up this sandstone mountain.
Baby or not, it’s not something I’d want to do to reach this church. Other than the audacity and mystery of the location, the church was hewn into this cliff for defense. During the 10th century, Ethiopia’s Christians were at war with a Jewish queen named Judith, and soon after, with Muslims also. (At that moment in history, the Muslims claimed they could break the Hadith, because the Christians attacked them first.)
In the second cave of hollowed-out rock, an oversized egg, there’s room enough for a 12-year-old boy—or me, at 5-foot-3—to stand up straight in its center. There’s nothing inside the shelter but a tiny wooden seat that looks like a milking stool. The stone egg is a chamber for meditation, the monk explains before he and Yonas leave me alone for a minute. I pull the stool under me, and look over the rock’s lip. A few feet away, the cliff falls off to oblivion. I can feel the wind scour my bones clean, like the monks’ skeletons in the cave behind me. I don’t think that the men can hear me over the wind.
“Thank you,” I say, “You can have my life now.”
I don’t know what the offering means, and I don’t stop to think about it. Yonas has warned that the worst part is still ahead, but it’s one of those rare moments when I am allowed to leave my fear and sack of small woes by the milking stool. We press on into a small room decorated with men with piercing eyes riding white horses: the nine pale-skinned saints’ arrival in Africa.