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Ethiopia: Debre Damo Monastery

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Debre Damo Monastery | Ethiopia | Africa

[Visited: November 2006]

Almost as soon as you leave the main Adigrat-Adwa road, you can see the flat-topped mountain on which Debre Damo is located looming over the surrounding landscape. It still takes quite a long time before you actually cross a small river and start the final ascent from the foot of the mountain to reach the end of the road. From here, my heart started beating a little faster, as I was in anticipation of the vertical climb required to reach the monastery. When I reached the vertical wall and looked up, I realized this was steep, but the priest climbing up the rope before me gave me confidence and I wondered if I should give it a go without the secondary rope.

Picture of Debre Damo Monastery (Ethiopia): Debre Damo, lying on a flat-topped hill, can be seen from a distance

When the second rope was thrown at me from above, it appeared obvious to use it, and a short while later, while dangling in the air and trying to get a hold on the worn-off wall with my sandals, I was glad I was still safely guarded by the second rope around my waist. According to legend, Abba Aregawi reached the top with the help of a flying serpent, but for more rational people like me, it is hard to see how someone could have reached the top without any help - he must have been a very able rockclimber. I would see his legendary ascent as a future founder of Debre Damo at various places later on. Once on the top of the amba or flat-topped hill, I visited the Axumite church, reputedly one of the oldest free standing churches in Ethiopia, marvelled at the interior of the church even though most of it is closed for visitors, and had a great view from the bell tower.

Picture of Debre Damo Monastery (Ethiopia): Priest climbing the wall to reach Debre Damo with a leather rope

I then visited some lower cliffs, with another, smaller and newer church right on the ridge, and some small cemetery caves filled with bones and skulls, as well as some cave shrines with artwork inside. A tour of the hilltop revealed an extensive village of monks, with many bulls, some trees and a large number of man-made water basins, on which the monks leave duckweed as a protective measure against sunlight and evaporation. Every time I reached the edge of the cliffs, I realized again the spectacular location of Debre Damo monastery. On my way off the amba, I came across a colourful and impressive funerary service, apparently for a deceased woman - her visit to Debre Damo would also be her last.

Picture of Debre Damo Monastery (Ethiopia): Axumite architecture in church at Debre Damo monastery
Picture of Debre Damo Monastery (Ethiopia): Robes of priests hanging on a line at Debre Damo monastery
Picture of Debre Damo Monastery (Ethiopia): Wooden ceiling with carved animals at Abba Aregawi church at Debre Damo
Picture of Debre Damo Monastery (Ethiopia): Debre Damo monastery: priests walking on the flat-topped hill
Picture of Debre Damo Monastery (Ethiopia): Abba Aregawi church, Debre Damo monastery: priest with cross
Picture of Debre Damo Monastery (Ethiopia): Dwellings of monks and priests at Debre Damo monastery
Picture of Debre Damo Monastery (Ethiopia): Debre Damo view: looking deep down into the landscape
Picture of Debre Damo Monastery (Ethiopia): Finally reached the top: funerary service for woman at Debre Damo
Picture of Debre Damo Monastery (Ethiopia): Funeral at Debre Damo monastery for a woman
Picture of Debre Damo Monastery (Ethiopia): Water basins are essential to life at Debre Damo monastery
Picture of Debre Damo Monastery (Ethiopia): Skulls in cave at Debre Damo monastery
Picture of Debre Damo Monastery (Ethiopia): Old priest making his way up the wall at Debre Damo monastery
Picture of Debre Damo Monastery (Ethiopia): Abba Aregawi getting some divine help on his way up to found Debre Damo monastery

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