Going, going, gone…the descent from Debre Damo Monastery

The ability to block out the unpalatable, however inevitable, is one of the more remarkable things about human psychology. So it was, after climbing up the rock face to get into Debre Damo Monastery. While I explored the hilltop and took in the views over the surrounding countryside, I put the descent out of my mind.

It was only when I got back to the entrance/exit point that the inevitable dawned on me. The view down the sheer rock face was disconcerting at best. Like a child who has climbed a tree, only to find themselves regretting it when its time to come back down, I felt like calling the fire brigade. Unfortunately, there was only one way off this particular rock…time to descend.

Looking nervous, with good reason, before leaving Debre Damos Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Looking nervous, with good reason, before leaving Debre Damos Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Nervous, Moi? Leaving Debre Damos Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Nervous, Moi? Leaving Debre Damos Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Leaving Debre Damos Monastery via the vertical rock face, Ethiopia, Africa

Leaving Debre Damos Monastery via the vertical rock face, Ethiopia, Africa

The look on the man who supports your weight as you descend pretty much says it all…or at least, it seems to be saying, “this bloke’s an idiot.”

Leaving Debre Damos Monastery via the vertical rock face, Ethiopia, Africa

Leaving Debre Damos Monastery via the vertical rock face, Ethiopia, Africa

Leaving Debre Damos Monastery via the vertical rock face, Ethiopia, Africa

Leaving Debre Damos Monastery via the vertical rock face, Ethiopia, Africa

Leaving Debre Damos Monastery via the vertical rock face, Ethiopia, Africa

Leaving Debre Damos Monastery via the vertical rock face, Ethiopia, Africa

Leaving Debre Damos Monastery via the vertical rock face, Ethiopia, Africa

Leaving Debre Damos Monastery via the vertical rock face, Ethiopia, Africa

It is seriously vertical…and if I was those four men at the bottom, I’d consider relocating to somewhere less likely to result in death by falling tourist. If anyone was wondering, things like this are the reason for all the grey hair…

Leaving Debre Damos Monastery via the vertical rock face, Ethiopia, Africa

Leaving Debre Damos Monastery via the vertical rock face, Ethiopia, Africa

Leaving Debre Damos Monastery via the vertical rock face, Ethiopia, Africa

Leaving Debre Damos Monastery via the vertical rock face, Ethiopia, Africa

At the bottom of the climb were these men seated in the shadow of the cliff. They looked a bit like a panel of judges assessing the climbing abilities of tourists. I suspect they were fairly unimpressed with my efforts…

Looking unimpressed by my efforts, Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Looking unimpressed by my efforts, Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

All but the last photo in this selection were taken by Boris Kester from the Netherlands, a fellow traveller who I met at Debre Damo.

Debre Damo Monastery, an Ethiopian funeral

For the living, the Debre Damo Monastery is an all male affair. To gain access as a woman, you have to be dead – please don’t shoot the messenger, I don’t make the rules. It just so happened that when I was visiting Debre Damo, I was able to witness the funeral of a woman from one of the local villages. Her first visit to the monastery would, alas, be her last.

There is only one way onto the mountain where the monastery is located, which meant that the coffin had to be hoisted up the vertical rock face before being taken onwards to the funeral service. It was a remarkable sight to see the funeral arrive at the base of the mountain. Accompanied by dozens of mourners and musicians, as well as people carrying ceremonial umbrellas and Ethiopian flags, it seemed more like a celebration than a funeral.

Mourners arrive with the coffin at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Mourners arrive with the coffin at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Mourners arrive with the coffin at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Mourners arrive with the coffin at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The coffin is hoisted up the rock face at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The coffin is hoisted up the rock face at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

After wondering around the mountain top, I was heading back to leave when a sudden riot of colour in the distance caught my attention. Priests were gathered around under a tree, dressed in wonderfully bright colours and carrying even more extravagantly colourful umbrellas. A band played traditional music and the head priest said prayers. There were plenty of people attending proceedings, but they were all men. I felt rather sad that this woman’s female friends were barred from being there as well.

A woman's funeral at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

A woman’s funeral at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

A woman's funeral at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

A woman's funeral at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

A woman’s funeral at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

A woman's funeral at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

A woman’s funeral at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

A woman's funeral at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

A woman’s funeral at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Debre Damo Monastery, rock climbing into 1400 years of Ethiopian history

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.

Debre Damo Monastery on a hilltop in Tigray region, Ethiopia, Africa

Debre Damo Monastery on a hilltop in Tigray region, Ethiopia, Africa

A priest near Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

A priest near Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

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.

Contemplating the climb to Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Contemplating the climb to Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The climb to Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The climb to Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The climb to Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The climb to Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The climb to Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The climb to Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

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.

The man who pulled me up the cliff to Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The man who pulled me up the cliff to Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

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 view from Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The view from Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Young priest, Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Young priest, Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

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.

Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Priests outside Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Priests outside Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Priests outside Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Priests outside Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

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.

The village near Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The village near Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The village near Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The village near Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The village near Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The village near Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The village near Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The village near Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

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…

Ethiopia, home of coffee and the origin of the species

Ethiopia is a beautiful and fascinating country. A country which defies cliché. Yet the legacy of the vicious Marxist government, and the terrible droughts and famine of the 1980s, still frame people’s perceptions of it and it’s people. It is a country like no other, where received wisdom is hopelessly out of kilter with reality. Our twelve days in Ethiopia, splitting our time between Axum in the north, Bahir Dar on Lake Tana and the extraordinary Lalibela, would only be a taster of this amazing country.

Church in the colours of the Ethiopian flag, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Church in the colours of the Ethiopian flag, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

My first impression of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, wasn’t great. I arrived at 2am, and the drive through the dark, silent streets was at high speed. When my taxi arrived at the hotel I discovered my room had been given away. I could see my name on the reservation list, but a European tour group was stranded by a cancelled flight – one of the group was happily sleeping in my bed. Ironically, the tour group organiser came to my rescue, suggesting another hotel. I finally got to bed around 4am.

Not honouring hotel bookings is small fry compared to some of Ethiopia’s more entrenched problems. I was thinking about my trip a few years ago, while reading a recent news article. The only opposition member of the Ethiopian Parliament, Girma Seifu Maru, was quoted saying that the government’s suppression of opposition was storing up trouble for the future. Thats putting it mildly. On my first day in Addis Ababa, a taxi driver pointed out the university, adding that, thanks to a government crackdown on student protests, most of the students were completing their studies in prison.

Ethiopian Coptic priest, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic priest, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic church, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic church, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Things don’t seem to have improved much between my visit and now. Corruption, poverty, a lack of transparency and accountability continue to blight the country’s 94 million inhabitants. As does the proxy war Ethiopia is fighting in Somalia on behalf of the United States and its allies. Yet if Ethiopia’s present is beset with problems, its ancient history might point toward a glorious future.

A lion in Zion, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

A lion in Zion, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Boasting Africa’s richest historical heritage, the human history of the country can be traced back to some of the earliest stone tools (around 2.5 million years old). Around 800 BC, when the Phoenicians were founding Carthage, an ancient kingdom existed in Ethiopia. This gave rise to the Aksumite Empire which, by 300 AD, stretched across the Red Sea to Yemen, and was considered one of the world’s great powers (alongside the Roman, Persian and Chinese Empires). The famed Axum Stelae are evidence of the sopistication of the Aksumite civilisation.

Ancient stelae in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Ancient stelae in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Landscape near Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Landscape near Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Global trade routes, and proximity to the Middle East, meant the Aksumite Empire was heavily influenced by the monotheistic religions that flourished there. There is an ancient Jewish tribe, the Falasha, which has existed in Ethiopia for centuries. The Ethiopian Queen, Makeda, also known as the Queen of Sheba, is supposed to have visited King Solomon’s Jerusalem. Allegedly, Solomon is the father of her child, Menelik, who established Juadism as the religion of the Aksumite Empire.

This may be myth, but it was the foundation stone of legitimacy for Ethiopia’s monarchy. Part of the King Solomon story relates how the Ark of the Covenant was brought and hidden in Ethiopia by Menelik. It apparently remains under lock and key in Axum’s Maryam Tsion Church, and only one living person has actually seen it.

A young shepherd looks over the Blue Nile waterfalls, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

A young shepherd looks over the Blue Nile waterfalls, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

When Christianity emerged it was adopted by the Aksumite Empire, which in 324 AD became one of the first Christian kingdoms. The legacy of this can be seen across Ethiopia. There are monasteries and churches throughout the country, many over 1000 years old – the extraordinary rock-hewn churches of Lalibela being some of the finest examples. As Islam spread across the region, Ethiopia became isolated from developments elsewhere in the Christian world. This isolation has bequeathed the unique Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity to the world.

Young girl in a village near Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Young girl in a village near Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian houses in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian houses in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Given this, it’s ironic that Ethiopia is the site of some of the most significant archaeological discoveries related to human evolution. In 1974, in the remote and dangerous Afar Depression, teams of scientists discovered numerous Hominid bones that are a major piece of evidence that our ancestors evolved in, and migrated out of, Africa. This includes the 3.5 million year old skeleton of Lucy, an iconic human ancestor and an evolutionary ‘missing link’. Lucy wasn’t on display when I was in Addis Ababa, she’d been packed off to tour the United States.

Unique amongst African nations, Ethiopia was never colonised. During the 19th Century ‘Scramble for Africa’, Ethiopia fought tenaciously for its independence from would-be colonisers. The continuity of hereditary monarchy was only interrupted once, between 1936 – 41. The brief Italian occupation left little behind other than second rate pasta and third rate wine. The culture, religion and cuisine remain uniquely Ethiopian.

Rock-hewn Ethiopian Coptic church in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Rock-hewn Ethiopian Coptic church in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic priest in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic priest in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

The hereditary monarchy held on to power into the modern-era, ruling over a largely feudal society. This all came to a dramatic end when, in 1974, Emperor Haile Selassie was ousted by a hardline Communist military government, the Derg. Ethiopia became a Cold War satellite of the Soviet Union, and the Derg unleashed a period of terror. It was the failed policies of the Derg which led to the famine of the 1980s. Propped up by Soviet military aid, it was only in 1991 that the Derg was finally forced from power.

Since then, Ethiopia has fought a crippling war against its neighbour, Eritrea; a conflict that still flares up periodically. It also adopted a democratic constitution, but has lurched from one rigged election to another, keeping the same party in power since 1991. New elections are expected in 2015, their outcome may determine the course of Ethiopia’s future and whether-or-not the bottled-up dissent spills onto the streets.

The Blue Nile waterfalls, one of the origins of the River Ethiopia, Africa

The Blue Nile waterfalls, one of the origins of the River Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopia is also the home of one of humanity’s defining pleasures: coffee. The coffee bean originated in Ethiopia, and Ethiopian varieties are considered some of the finest in the world. Coffee plays a special role in Ethiopian society, including an elaborate coffee ceremony – the ritualised making and drinking of three cups of coffee for each person. As a visitor, you’re regularly called upon to drink coffee several times each day. Its easy to spend your entire time in the country permanently wired.