Monks on a Cliff Top at Ethiopia's Debre Damo
by Steve Davey

Reinforcing the idea that it shouldn't be easy to be a monk, getting to the Debre Damo monastery in Ethiopia requires a rope climb up a sheer rock wall.

Mention Ethiopia and the first thing on most people's mind will be famine. Well, famine, but with a touch of war and pestilence thrown in for good measure. The whole Live Aid benefit might have saved many people from starvation in the eighties, but it really hasn't done a great deal for it's tourist industry ever since.

So what is there to do in a country synonymous with suffering? Well Ethiopia is one of the most historic countries on the African continent. If you discount the Roman influence in North Africa, then Ethiopia has arguably more history, and historic sites than any country in Africa apart from Egypt.

One of the reasons why Ethiopia is still graced with so much history and so much indigenous culture is that it is the only country on the continent that was never colonized. The Italians tried it but got a bit of a stuffing. As it a result it has a feeling that is uniquely Ethiopian.

Ethiopia adopted Christianity in the 4th century AD. The Ethiopian royal family traced their lineage back to a liaison between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. Hailie Selassie––the last Emperor and revered by Rastafarians––was believed to be 155 in line from this regal meeting. The first in line was credited in some quarters as bringing back the Ark of the Covenant from the Holy Land, to Axum in the north of the country.

Now normally, Christianity isn't something that warms me to a country. Usually it is an indicator of cultural devastation––many fragile cultures have been swamped by the curious belief that to be a Christian you have to behave and act like a European. One of the most pernicious examples of this is the pressure to wear European clothing as opposed to less covering (and more suitable) indigenous clothes. Now don't get me started on theology, but the only time I can recall someone being told to put on clothes in the bible was Eve, by the snake––who biblically was apparently Satan.

Black Mary and the Queen of Sheba
Ethiopian Coptic Christianity though is something so essentially Ethiopian that is an intrinsic part of the country. Jesus, Mary and all the Saints (hell I sound like a cussing Irish Priest) are often shown as a black in the ancient ornate paintings that seemingly litter the insides of churches. It would probably give the Pope a coronary, but I have even seen a mural of a black Mary suckling Jesus––a scene that is repeated in virtually every market in Africa.

I have been to Ethiopia twice before, and each time wanted to get to Axum in the north of the country. The first time, there was a bit of a war going on, and the second time I was on a short commission to photograph the ancient stone carved churches at Lalibela. This time nothing is going to get in the way.

Axum is famous as being the home of the Ark of the Covenant, which is reputed to be contained in small church, under the protection of an old and somewhat irascible priest. It is also noted for the ruins of the Queen of Sheba's palace (although these details are disputed by the Yemenis, who have a counter claim that she originated in Arabia) and a number of great carved stelae––believed to date back over 1700 years. The largest of these was stolen by Mussolini in his foray into Ethiopia and for years was erected in Rome. It has recently been returned and lies in pieces awaiting assembly.

Ethiopia travel

All of these would have been worth the long trek north on their own, but I also want to visit the ancient monastery of Debre Damo. Why? Because it is on a rock plateau in the middle of nowhere and you have to climb up a rope to scale a sheer cliff face to get in.

To get to the monastery I need to hire a vehicle. Hiring a vehicle in Ethiopia is easy. The first thing you do is wait for someone to drive past in a 4WD and then flag them down and ask if they will drive you somewhere. Aid workers won't even give you a lift––they are far too important, but just about anyone else will have a price. Most of the owners of the vehicles will also have a driver, so you haggle with the owner and the driver gets thrown in for free.

It takes about four hours to drive to the monastery and on the journey, my young driver Gabriel proves himself to be a really good driver and an expert in Premiership Football. The UK game is big all over the world, especially in Africa, where the locals pick their teams based upon their favorite players of African origin. A couple of times a week a local small cinema shows live games on satellite TV. My knowledge of football is less impressive––well, functionally zero. I hate the game but for the sake of Anglo–Ethiopian relations I nod sagely and try to feign an interest.

I approach the monastery with some trepidation. Although I am keen to visit it, I am ridiculously bad with heights. I get a nosebleed climbing a ladder, yet here I am about to climb a 25–meter cliff face in the middle of nowhere. It is a rough drive along a dirt track from the turn off and I ponder on how rough the return journey might be following a fall from the cliff.

Ethiopia cliff

Holy Rock Climbing
We park the vehicle and walk to the foot of the cliff. A couple of young kids tag along, it seems that they are to be my guides. We get to the foot of the almost sheer cliff, that luckily has a few footholds on the way up and a ledge about halfway. At the top of the cliff is a small doorway built into the rock. A thick rope hangs down. It is about five inches in diameter and I can barely grip it. The kids call up and a leather rope is thrown down. It is made from lengths of hide knotted together. This is the safety rope.

The two kids take it in turns to grab the main rope and scramble straight up the cliff. They make it look easy. I am sure it is not. At the foot of the cliff is a sloped section. I stand on this holding on to the rope and Gabriel ties the safety rope around me. I start to climb. The first bit is about 15 meters up to the ledge off to the side of the cliff. I pause there for a while and survey the next bit––a diagonal traverse, climbing about ten meters and negotiating a slight overhang. A couple of faces grin down at me from the doorway, encouraging me on. I take a few deep breaths, grip the rope so hard that my knuckles glisten white, and carry on upwards.

At the top of the cliff I scramble through the doorway and look around. I was expecting to see some large gatekeeper on the end of the safety rope. There is only a small man, who resembles an Ethiopian Igor, the mad scientist's assistant. If they ever do an African remake of Frankenstein's Monster, this is the guy who will shuffle over carrying the glass beaker with the brain in it.

I console myself that he must have phenomenal muscles under his loose fitting blue jacket. I give his biceps a squeeze jokingly. He is almost unnaturally skinny and I can feel every bone. We laugh. If I had slipped there is no way he could have held me. I would have gone all the way to the bottom and the rope would have to have broken my fall, and probably my ribs, as I got to the slope at the bottom. I don't feel any sense of victory though––I am very aware that I still have to get down again.

Quiet as a Monk's Quarters
I put these thoughts from my mind and supervise the kids pulling my camera bag up. Everything has to come up this way. I am told that recently a cow was hauled up, breaking a 1400–year ban on females of any species being allowed on the plateau. It took six men to man the ropes. Women are still banned from the monastery however, as they are from most of the monasteries throughout the country.

ancient manuscript

We make our way to the church, which is the oldest in Ethiopia. There are apparently over one hundred monks living at Debre Damo but they must all be hiding. The place seems deserted and this gives it an eerie atmosphere. There is one monk by the church, who seems in a very bad mood. He grudgingly opens the building and then the store of ancient manuscripts.

The church is made from large flat stones and wooden lintels. Like most Ethiopian churches it has an inner sanctum, where only the priests are allowed to go. Unlike most of the churches I have visited in the country there are no murals on the walls, but there are a number of ancient religious paintings. Debre Damo is noted for the ancient illuminated manuscripts, which are some of the oldest in the country. I am also shown a great illuminated bible, written in the ancient religious language of Ge'ez on cured goatskin. The bible is hundreds of years old, but the images look as bright as if they were painted only yesterday.

I linger until the priest gets cranky and escorts me out. There is a tower opposite the church, which gives a commanding view of it, and the entire monastery area. This is made up of many buildings stretched across the plateau. The monks are fairly self sufficient, and have resisted invaders a number of times in their history. Each dwelling has a water tank carved into the solid rock. The water is covered in green lichen but apparently is safe to drink.

Ethiopia monk

The kids lead me round the edge of the plateau. The views are incredible, but the place still seems deserted. Apparently the monks spend most of their time praying and meditating in their own dwellings and only come out occasionally and to attend the church. One old monk appears at his door though and waves us in. He is dressed in white and has a face etched with lines. His dwelling is large, but very basic. He motions me to sit down and we try at a conversation, translated by Gabriel. I take a few pictures and then show him the picture on the back of the camera. He is fascinated at this intrusion of technology to his traditional life.

Soon it is time to leave. We have to get back to Axum, and it is not wise to drive after dark. On the way back to the cliff face we pass a more recent church, and a couple of shallow caves with human bones arranged in them. It seems that the monks don't leave Debre Damo even after they have died. It is sobering to look at these remains, and I am reminded of my own mortality, not least because I still have to make the climb back down the cliff.

Steve Davey

Steve Davey is a renowned travel photographer whose work has appeared in a variety of publications around the world, including Wanderlust. He is co–author (and photographer) of the bestselling book Unforgettable Places to See Before You Die and his new book is Unforgettable Islands to Escape to Before You Die. He is also a contributor to the Perceptive Travel Blog. Davey and his family are based in London, but his daughter visited Bali, Australia and Croatia before she was even born.

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