Looking for thrill for your next holiday? Try climbing the 25 meter wall by leather rope to visit this Ethiopian monastery.
Debre Damo is a 3,200 foot butte, or emba in the Tigrinya language, located in the Tigray region of Northern Ethiopia. Sitting atop the butte is Ethiopia's oldest Ethiopian Orthodox monastery, dating back to the 6th century. Legend has it that Abuna Aregawi, one of the nine saints of the Church, founded the monastery after he climbed up the tail of Zonda, a holy serpent, imagery of which is found painted all over the church. The monastery is also known for its original style, with curved wood panels and painted murals, and a collection of goat skin manuscripts written in Ge'ez (the language of the Church, akin to Latin).
Tigray is the northernmost of Ethiopia's nine regions, bordering South Sudan to the west and the recent independent, Eritrea. The stark desert landscape dotted with buttes lends itself to the 120 semi-monolithic, rock-hewn churches found throughout the region. The buttes, or embas, on which the churches are located, were the sites of village infrastructure, as their height made them easily defendable. For centuries, it was custom that when the Ethiopian emperor assumed his throne, all his potential male heirs were taken to these embas or "royal prisons" for protection until they were called on to become the new Emperor. Debre Damo, along with two other embas, served just this purpose.
To attempt to climb Debre Damo, my party traveled for hours on bumpy dirt roads and arrived just as a funeral procession was ending. We watched in awe as the coffin was hoisted up a 25 meter pock-marked vertical rock face, the only way to ascend to Debre Damo, by handmade leather ropes. Below, hundreds of mourners gathered in white shawls (netela for women and kuta for men) to celebrate and pray. Women gathered in the shade to the side of the climb while the men lined up to prepare to climb to the monastery--females and female animals are strictly banned. Our faranji (foreigner) party waited for the funeral process to thin out before attempting our own climb.
Local habesha or Ethiopians, both young and old, scamper up the wall in bare feet with little assistance from the braided leather rope. But for tourists, you can pay a small fee to have the elderly priest hoist you up by leather harness. Although a British chap had to turn back halfway up the wall, to the amusement of all the habesha men below, I eventually made it up. We were lead by armed guard to a small porch to pay another fee for our tickets. Despite being steps away from the monastery, we had to wait 15 minutes while each of our tickets were methodically scrawled out; bureaucracy is very important to the Ethiopian people. The local priest then led us into the dark, musty monastery which featured thick rugs, dark, worn wood, paintings, and an ancient Ge'ez bible written on cured goat skin. The monastery has little to see, however, compared to the rest of the butte.
I walked around the village atop the butte in perhaps 30 minutes. Stone houses and walls lined small alleyways, where habeshas routinely stopped their construction to stare at me. The land was laden with the bones of male animals hoisted up for sustenance, but with nowhere else to go. Steep drop-offs shrouded in spartan shrubs loomed on all sides. Occasional caves held shrines and what I'm nearly certain were human bones. One building, brightly adorned with green, yellow, and red, the national colors of Ethiopia, sat overlooking the expansive igrayan landscape. The all-male community atop the butte was marvel of creation, whether with the help of a holy snake or not, to rival the Medieval castles of Europe.
The influx of mild tourism to the Tigray rock-hewn churches, thanks to word-of-mouth and travel guides like Lonely Planet, have led locals to monetize everything. Local farm kids wander around the buttes hoping to lead faranjis up to the church as "tour guides" for a kickback. Priests demand fees for each room within a church and one in particular pushed a hand into our chests asking for tips until we had walked off the butte. And who can blame them? In a land of subsistence agriculture that's been plagued by famines and civil war, this trickle of tourism is a chance worth taking advantage of. So if you find you can stomach the steep climb to Debre Damo on your next holiday, just make sure you tip your priest–or you may find you don’t have a way down.