Dangers & Annoyances
The rock-hewn churches of Tigray are spectacular, but visiting them comes with strings attached. Years of tourists handing out coins, pens, sweets etc around the Gheralta cluster created a climate of aggressive begging that’s now so rotten that kids sometimes throw stones at people who don’t hand over bounty. All locals we talked to insist the situation is improving, in part because police visit schools to teach kids not to hassle tourists. Our experience is that things have improved, but the frequency of reports from travellers and tour guides contradicts this. Hiring a local Tigrinya-speaking guide is a good, but only partial, defence. Making things more frustrating is the attitude among many locals that if you go alone and have trouble it’s your own fault.
But kids aren’t the only problem. Some priests expect, and often demand, extra money. Many visitors balk at tipping priests because the admission fees are so high, but fees go to the church bureaucracy (unless a receipt is not issued, in which case it might go to the church or priest). True, with the huge profits being made from tourism the church should compensate the priests for this extra work, but it doesn’t. Priests here are not full-time preachers. They have homes, families and farms just like everyone else who lives near the churches, so a tip for opening their church (Birr50 is usually fine) is entirely justified. (Anyone who goes to find a priest or walks you to a church deserves a small tip, too.)
But when they won’t turn on lights or point anything out unless even more money is donated, the whole experience becomes frustrating. In fact, one of our authors was locked inside a church by a priest who refused to let him go until he handed over more money! On the other hand, it must be said that most priests we met were friendly and helpful.
Gheralta Local Guide Association Official guides are mandatory for Abuna Yemata Guh and Maryam Korkor (where going alone is potentially dangerous), but they can be hired for other places too, which we recommend. This office is at the main junction in Megab. You can also hire local scouts (Birr100) to carry bags and chase away children.