Many years ago I watched a PBS documentary on ancient Christian sites in Ethiopia. Totally fascinated from the safety of my living room armchair. Would I ever get there? Not a chance, only a dream. But the dream began to unfold as I visited Lalibela (rock churches) and Aksum (Chapel of the Ark of the Covenant).
Then the big one--the mountain monastery that can be accessed only by rope! In the middle of a street in Aksum, my tour guide, Teshome, kept urging me to stay on for two more days. I said I could manage only one day. Then I remembered this mountain monastery, and asked if it is in the area. Who da thunk? It was only a one-day trip--so off we went.
The Debre Damo monastery was started by a 6th century Syrian monk for whom not being pestered by people was apparently number one on his checklist, 'How to start a monastery.' Anyway, it is still a living monastery with over 200 monks, deacons and boy apprentices living on its plateau top. Due to its antiquity, it remains one of the most sacred sites for the Ethiopian Coptic Church, though isolated in the far north on the Eritrean border.
This is the ultimate guy place--forget the sports bars downtown Toronto! Not even female animals are allowed.
I qualified, so agreed--without consulting my interior fear factor--to make the trip. The mountain area is over 6,500 feet above sea level, and the rope-climbing cliff itself is 50 feet.
The 'safety' rope is an oxen leather strap placed around my waist and a 'trusted' monk holding it at the top to prevent me from falling. Then I am given a braided 'climbing' rope which is my key to getting to the top and back, with only the strength of my pulling power and ingenuity in finding enough small crevices in the cliff to place my feet for leverage.
This Note is proof positive that I made it. Teshome was so impressed (my silver a hair undoubtedly a factor) he gave me a big hug for my successful journey!
Here are some photos of the mountain from a distance and the climb.
Here are a few pics of the monastery. The centre of the community is the church--the oldest church in Ethiopia still in its original style (renovated a few years ago). The design is a layering of stone and strips of olive wood (which lasts about 2,000 years). Olive trees grow on the top but--you guessed it--even they are not fruit-bearing!
The church also holds many ancient and valuable manuscripts. One of the highlight pics for me is this one of a monk holding open one of these early volumes of the Scriptures with colourful illustrative paintings.
There is a chapel at the base of the mountain, especially for women who wish to pray there but are not allowed on the top. And there are remains of a convent that in the past housed an order of nuns. Finally, out on the ledge, a few feet down, is a small cemetery. Women are allowed to be buried there on request, I suppose based on the virtue, 'Better late than never!' Less attractive is that the cemetery can be unappealing to the nostrils in hot weather, since the graves are shallow due to being chiseled out of solid rock.