The jagged mountains of Adwa, between Axum and Debre Damo. The place is known for the battle of Adwa, which holds a special significance in Ethiopia history. During the end of the 18th century, the Italians attempted to expand from the colony of Eritrea into Ethiopia. In September 1895, a vast army led by Emperor Menelik II defeated the better-armed colonial army by killing more than 6,000 of them. Today, Ethiopia remains as the only one country that has never been fully colonised by western powers.
There was a time I thought that Axum was enough “isolated” to be reached by tourist crowds. But “isolation” soon changed its meaning on my way to Debre Damo, one of the most prominent and historic among Ethiopia’s twenty thousand plus churches and monasteries.
Perching high on top of a 2,800-metre mountain, the Debre Damo monastery is an ideal place for hermits. The mountain is 11 kilometres from the main Axum-Tigray road. Only the toughest 4x4 can access to the nearby village, from where pilgrims and visitors alike start a steep ascend in the slope littered with cactus. From there, the real challenge begins.
Axum has an airport, an avenue, a few hotels, a handful of shops and a bank. It has bus connections to other towns. Debre Damo has none of these. Located eleven kilometres off the mid-point of the bumpy Axum-Adigrat road, the monastery perches on top of a 2,800-metre plateau surrounded by vertical cliff.
A test of faith. Following the rope and footholds, a monk scales the cliff to reach the monastery 24 metres above with little effort.
Which explains why a visit to the monastery came with a price - $110 for a Land Rover with a driver. Poor pilgrims have to endure much more hardship to reach their goal. I was not surprised to see a pilgrim woman who stopped my car by pouncing herself on the hood, just begging me to tag her along. She was going to Kidane Mehret monastery built specially for women at the foot of the cliff. It remains a mystery as why females are not permitted in Debre Damo. One commonly accepted theory is that sexual contact should be avoided between females and the monks or hermits. But this can not explain the exclusion of female livestock.
The monastery of Debre Damo. Windows of various styles are cut through the stone wall. It took Aregawi two years to build (perhaps with the help of the huge snake) in 6th century, maily with slabs of stone and timber. Since then, the monastery has stood firm even without renovation.
Debre Damo monastery was built in the 6th century by Abuna Aregawi, one of the nine Saints who taught Christianity in Ethiopia. Aregawi had a vision of an isolated place ideal for a solitary life. The construction was sponsored by Emperor Gebre Meskel and, according to the local legend, with the help of a huge snake. Upon its completion, the Emperor asked if the stairs leading to the mountain top should be kept or destroyed. Aregawi answered "Dahememo", meaning "wreck it". Over the years, "Dahememo" has corrupted into "Debre Dahm'mo" and eventually Debre Damo.
The stone-and-timber wall of the Debre Damo monastery has withstood wind and rain for more than a thousand year. Inside the church (inset), the timbers were slick by generations of monks and priests.
The caves on the mountain top serve as final resting places for monks and priests.
When vehicle could go no further, everyone, rich or poor, had to rely on his own power to propel himself to the destination. But the real challenge was to scale the twenty-four-metre cliff by means of a rope. The local monks seemed to have developed an uncanny skill in climbing the cliff with minimal effort. As for the sole visitor of the day, a little help was necessary. A rope of hide was tied on my waist in case I lost my grip.
Today, there are about 600 monks reside in the 150 houses on the mountain top, which comprises an area of about half of a square kilometre. The village is almost self-sufficient with their own rock-hewn cisterns collecting rain water, and herds of (male) livestock.
After fifteen centuries, the monastery of Dabre Damo has experience little change. Rare visitors are usually led to the home of the high priest paying respect and fee, then they would be escorted to appreciate the interior of the monastery and surrounding area, which boasts a spectacular panorama view of the Tigray Highland. Today, there are about 600 monks and priest live in the 150 stone houses on the mountain top. Their life is almost entirely self-sufficient, with cisterns collecting rain water, home grown crops and (male) livestock.
The massive wall of the 5th-century-BC pre-Christian temple serves as the only remaining relic of this oldest capital of Ethiopia. The temple represents the highest architecture achievement of the time - large blocks of sandstone fit perfectly together with mortar. There is no room for a blade between the blocks even after more than two thousand years of erosion.
A priest reciting his holy book in Geez in the Church of Abuna Aftse in Yeha. After the introduction of Christianity in Ethiopia, the church was built in 6th century to replace the century-old temple.
The surreal blue sky of Tigray and the lush meadow land create an idyllic backdrop for the village and ancient temple of Yeha.
Geographically Yeha is not far from Debre Damo. But it still required some effort for a vehicle to reach. Few realise that it is Yeha, not Axum, that claims the titles of the earliest capital of Ethiopia and the birthplace of Ethiopia's civilisation. Tucked away at the highland in northern Ethiopia, the village and monastery in Yeha surrounded by an idyllic landscape that rivals Switzerland. Sadly, there is not much left in Yeha today except the ruin of a temple believed to have been built by the southern Arabs in 5th century BC. Nevertheless, I was happy to discover the best kept secret in Ethiopia.
Last Update: October 24 2009 02:16:51 -0500