They don’t make it easy to get into Debre Damo Monastery. Getting to it involves a lovely drive through some beautiful countryside, its only once you’re there that the problems start. If you’re male, there is a climb up a 40 meter-high sheer rock face, followed by squeezing yourself through a narrow doorway before you finally can say you’ve truly arrived. If you’re female, and there is no easy way to say this, you need to be dead before you can enter the sacred confines of the male only monastery.
It’s not only human females that are banned from the monastery, there has been a ban on females of any species for the last 1400 years. If I’m being honest, as I was suspended from a rope half way up the rock face, I found myself wishing that they didn’t let males of any species into the place either.
I can’t quite describe the ordeal involved climbing up the rock face. I’d watched several Ethiopians zooming up without much effort, just using the rope that came down from the entrance. For a tourist like me, the monastery officials tied a rope around my waist and a man, possibly the strongest 80 year old in the world, helped to pull me up. There’s nothing like a ‘senior citizen’ doing the majority of the work for you to improve self esteem. It’s an exercise in humility.
Thankfully, it was worth all the effort and humiliation. Debre Damo Monastery is a place that needs to be seen to be believed. The monastery’s location, sitting at 2216 meters above sea level on top of a flat-topped mountain with sheer-sided cliffs, sets a dramatic scene and, once you’ve reached the top of the cliffs, the views are spectacular.
The history of the monastery is fascinating. It is dedicated to Saint Abba Aregawi, one of nine Syrian Christians who came to spread Christianity in Ethiopia in the 6th Century. While Aregawi settled on Debre Damo, the other “Nine Saints” all settled in this region and have similar churches dedicated to them. Legend has it that Saint Aregawi flew to the top of the mountain on a winged serpent under the direction of St. Michael, thus avoiding the need to be hauled up there by an octogenarian.
The building itself – which I couldn’t enter because there was a funeral taking place – incorporates stones and other elements from the pre-Christian Axumite Empire into the church’s structure. I was allowed to climb the bell tower of the church, which provided great views over the village and surrounding countryside.
Walking around the large flat hilltop, weaving between houses, you are constantly coming across typical scenes of daily life. Making my way back towards the ‘exit’ I suddenly came across the funeral that was taking place – it was of a woman from a local village, the first and last time she would visit the monastery. But more of that later…