Climbing Ethiopia’s clifftop monastery

While visiting the ancient capital of Axum is one of the highlights of any trip to Ethiopia, you can’t see its most famous relic–the Ark of the Covenant, reputed to be kept in a special building behind the Cathedral of Tsion Maryam. Only a lone caretaker is allowed entry into this sacred building. Every Ethiopian Orthodox Church has a replica of the Ark, called the tabot, but only members of the clergy are allowed to see it.

Even though the holiest artifact of Ethiopian Christianity is strictly off-limits, outsiders can still see places that look like something straight out of the histories of the early Christian Fathers.

After Axum, the main highway loops southwards through the border province of Tigray and passes Debre Damo, built in the 6th century and one of the oldest monasteries in the world. Perched high atop a sheer mesa (amba in Tigrayana), it has survived wars, invasions, forced conversions, and the relentless pressures of time. Women are forbidden to enter the monastery and even female animals are kept away. The only way to enter is by climbing a thick leather rope up a sheer cliff. The priests have cut many footholds over the years, but this didn’t help my fear of heights.

Four years of rock climbing in college made me able to control my fear, but never took it away. Still, I wasn’t about to pass up a lifelong dream. You see, back when I was about ten I read a National Geographic article on Debre Damo and thought the idea of monks living all their lives on top of a cliff was really cool. It was my first impression of Ethiopia, and the image stuck with me through all the reports of famine and war in the 1980s and 90s. I knew there was a different Ethiopia to the one I saw on television and I was determined to see it .

Seeing it was turning out to be tough going.

The high altitude has both me and Sntayehu, my Ethiopian driver/translator/fixer, out of breath before we even get to the bottom of the cliff. Once there, a local guide ties me to the “security rope”, a thick leather strap that snakes up the cliff and disappears out of sight. Tying me in isn’t done with any sort of proper climbing harness, but a loose knot around my waist fastened with a long pin. I have to climb up the main leather rope hand over hand as some unseen assistant keeps the safety rope firm in case I fall. Travel is all about trust, but I’m determined not to test his belaying skill.

%Gallery-90292%So up I go, while Sntayehu stays at the bottom to take photographs of my squashed remains wondrous feat of climbing. The “assistant” at the top of the cliff yanks on the rope, and keeps yanking so hard he nearly pulls me free of the cliff. The security harness burns my skin and almost comes off as I puff up the cliff hand over hand as fast as I can for fear of getting assisted to death. In less time than I think possible I’m up, one hand on a rock crevasse, the other on a wooden threshold worn smooth by centuries of desperate grabs for dear life. Another pull up and this forty-year-old writer sees what he had been waiting three decades to see–the interior of one of Ethiopia’s most remote monasteries.

My view is suddenly blocked by the guy who had been so helpful on the climb up, a young deacon who promptly asks for the entrance fee. At 100 birr ($7.50) this is twice as much as most places, but an entire community of monks lives up here and this is one of their only means of support. Sntayehu told me a story of a group of Israeli backpackers who got to the top, complained about the price, and refused to pay. The deacon pulled up the rope and said they could climb down on their own. They paid. The monks may live in a different world, but that doesn’t mean they’re stupid!

Once that formality is finished, I chat with a couple of monks sitting on a narrow staircase leading up to the top of the mesa. My Amharic is limited, their English nonexistent, but I communicate how happy I am to finally be here and they communicate how welcome I am. Ethiopians are good at communicating that. Up the stairs I go and pass through a gate and onto the bare, flat top of the mesa. It’s large, large enough to house a couple of churches, a couple of hundred monks, and lots of open space in which to be alone. The monks only go down to buy food or perform church services, and when they get too old to climb down, they stay up here for the rest of their lives. Simple stone houses shelter them from the sun, and small herds of animals wander around grazing on the few shoots of grass poking up through cracks in the rock. The place looks abandoned as nearly everyone is at a church service.

With the main church closed for services there aren’t many “sights” to see up here, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the atmosphere I came to feel. The quiet is almost palpable, with only the wind blowing across bare rock and the occasional swoosh of an eagle riding the currents of air. A deacon tells me there are hermits living over the lip of the cliff, sitting in caves out of sight and accessible only by tiny finger- and toeholds. The oldest one has lived in a cave for sixty years. Unlike at the monasteries of Lake Tana, they aren’t given a holy book or icon to study, but simply sit thinking and looking out on the vast landscape. At night the monks can hear them singing.

I try to imagine what it would be like sitting alone in a cave and staring out at the rough, dry countryside. The terrain reminds me of the Holy Land, or the desert of Egypt where the world’s oldest Christian monastery still stands. I wonder what it is about deserts that draws mystics of all cultures. Is it the remoteness? The harshness? The proximity to death? Whatever it is, this is how monasteries started. At first hermits went out seeking solitude, then they were followed by more religious seekers until entire communities took root.

I also wonder what it’s like to live the life of a monk up here, but there’s nobody with enough English to ask. The deacon says he’s going to become a priest, the life of a monk being too hard. So I climb back down the rope little wiser than I went up it, except for seeing what life was like for the earliest Christians, and what it is still like for some. I’ve glimpsed a lifestyle I didn’t know still existed. And I learned that the hermits sing at night.

That’s enough.

To see earlier posts in this series, click here.