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.

Medieval monasteries on Lake Tana, Ethiopia

The Christian communities of Ethiopia have an eye for dramatic settings. From the sweeping views of Debre Libanos to the many monasteries perched atop sheer cliffs, the surroundings of a holy place are often as beautiful as the place itself.

It makes sense from a religious point of view. If you’re going to spend your life celebrating Creation, where better to do it than a place where Creation is at its most awesome or serene?

This is certainly true of the monasteries and nunneries on the islands of Lake Tana. These religious communities are set in a placid lake surrounded by green hills and fields. At 65 km (40 miles) in diameter it’s the largest lake in Ethiopia and has been a center of worship for more than 500 years.

Hiring a boat is pretty straightforward at the lakeside town of Bahir Dar, and our first stop is a peninsula a few miles along the coast where stands the 16th century church of Ura Kidane Mihret. The boat docks at a little pier and my wife and I take a narrow path through a dense forest. Coffee grows everywhere under the shade of the forest canopy. I’ve never seen coffee growing before. Splitting open one of the red berries I find the bean inside, a pale yellow, sticky thing that bears little resemblance to the roasted beans I’m used to. We drink Ethiopian coffee every morning at home so it’s nice to see where it comes from.

We climb a hill and pass though a simple stone gate. In the yard the monks are busy laying the foundation for a new building. All the monks have to work hard, either at farms on the mainland or helping out around the church and monastery. The church itself is deceptively simple on the outside–a large, round building topped by an elaborate cross–but when we pass through the tall wooden doors we’re stopped short by brilliantly colorful paintings reaching from floor to ceiling.


The outer wall of the church shelters an inner wall that encloses the worship area and holy of holies. Every inch of this wall is covered in paintings. Some scenes are familiar, like the Crucifixion and St. George defeating the dragon. Others are strange to us, coming from holy books that have been discarded by or lost to the Western tradition, like the Miracle of Mary and the Kebre Negast. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church includes many such books in their canon. The books of Enoch and Jubilees were translated into Ge’ez, the ancient Ethiopian language still used in church services, but were lost to the West and survive in the New Testament only in a few quotations. If it wasn’t for ancient Ethiopian translators, these books would be almost entirely unknown.

The paintings are vivid, showing scenes of miracles and worship. Mary is a popular figure and every phase of her flight to Egypt is shown in detail. There’s also a brilliant painting of all the souls in Hell being freed after the Crucifixion.

The paintings sometimes take interesting twists to familiar themes. For example, the common image of St. George killing the dragon has a unique legend attached to it in Ethiopia. There once was a village that worshiped the dragon and made human sacrifices to it every day. A maiden named Brutawit was going to be sacrificed and St. George told her that if she believed in God that she would be saved. She was, thanks to George’s skill with a lance, and she took the dead beast back to the village to show that God was more powerful than the dragon. The entire village then converted to Christianity.

A short boat ride away is the island monastery of Kibran Gabrael. Like many monasteries, it’s off-limits to women so my wife hung out in a shady grove while I went to see the monastery’s famous library of medieval manuscripts. The monastery is quiet, most of the monks being on the mainland tending crops, but the librarian is in and he leads me to a little building stuffed with books. As a dedicated bibliophile I’ve been to some of the great libraries of the world and looked through many rare illuminated manuscripts, but I was very impressed with what I saw on this peaceful little island. The level of artistry in the books is equal to any of the great works of medieval France or Italy, yet completely different in style. The librarian opens up book after book of sturdy goatskin, showing me richly colored paintings of Bible scenes. Each of the Gospels has its own book, and there’s a hefty New and Old Testament that weighs in at 17 kilos (38 pounds)! Also in the library are a selection of icons. When a monk goes off on his own to pray in solitude for a few days, the abbot gives him a book to read and an icon to meditate on. Thus the monks get some fine art to admire and think about while they are cut off from the rest of humanity.

Lake Tana has several other monasteries and churches other than the ones I mention here. Some take an entire day trip by boat to visit. Someone seriously interested in seeing them all would need about a week to do it properly. Hopefully some day I’ll go back and write about them all here.

Next stop: Gondar–Ethiopia’s Camelot!

You can read the rest of the Ethiopia series here.

Road trip: Ethiopia

Ethiopia is like the United States–it’s best seen on a long road trip. The easiest way to see Ethiopia’s beautiful landscape and ancient monuments is to hire a driver and vehicle in the capital Addis Ababa.

My wife and I picked Abey Roads based on a personal recommendation and decided to celebrate our tenth anniversary by doing the popular two-week “northern loop” encompassing the provinces of Amhara and Tigray and the most famous of Ethiopia’s ancient sites. Our driver Sntayehu Mekonen turned out to be a handy translator/guide/fixer, not to mention a fun travel companion. Many independent travelers prefer going it alone on public transport and while that is certainly cheaper, hiring a vehicle gives you more freedom of movement plus someone who is able to tell you about the country and show you out-of-the-way spots. So after some good first impressions of Ethiopia, we headed out.

The ride north out of Addis Ababa climbs up the steep slopes of the Entonto Hills through eucalyptus forest. This fast-growing Australian import was first planted by the Emperor Menelik more than a century ago. It provides a ready supply of construction material and the leaves are used for fuel. Women carry huge bundles of the leaves on their heads several miles downhill to sell in the market. Trucks speed past them with mountains of the stuff. Coming uphill we see one of Ethiopia’s famous runners, sprinting up a steep incline at 3,000 meters (9,000+ feet). Runners train in these hills so that when they race at lower elevations they can easily outpace the competition.

Up and over the hills and we’re speeding along the Oromo and Amhara uplands, a green and fertile region that looks nothing like the image most people have of Ethiopia. Acacia and eucalyptus dot the countryside and thatched roof huts are everywhere, their walls made of the thin trunks of eucalyptus. Children herding cows and goats wave at our car as their fathers thresh teff, a popular grain in Ethiopia. Teff is used to make injeera, the sour bread typical of Ethiopian cuisine, and it fetches a higher price than any other cereal crop. The tiny grains (the word derives from the Amharic term for “lost”) are separated from their husks by having cattle walk in circles over a heap of it until all the husks are crushed.

The first stop for most travelers on the northern historic loop is the monastery of Debre Libanos, 100 km north of Addis Ababa. A rough dirt road winds down a sheer 700 meter canyon to one of the holiest spots for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It was here in a cave in the cliff that the holy man Tekle Heymonot lived for many years praying and fasting. Deciding this wasn’t enough, he stood on one leg until the other one fell off. Some paintings of the saint show him ascending to heaven, his detached leg equipped with its own set of wings.

%Gallery-87468%Like holy places the world over, Debre Libanos is permeated with a sense of transcendent calm. The verdant cliffs overlooking it to one side and the sweeping views on the other make are beautiful, and the church’s bright dome shines in the sun, appearing smaller than it is in the imposing landscape.

Once inside the scene changes completely. The interior is dim, lit only by candles and colored light filtering through a row of stained glass windows. Men and women worship on separate sides, their prayers mingling with the chants of priests intoning ancient hymns in front of Tekla Heymonot’s tomb. The liturgical language is Ge’ez, an ancient tongue that uses the same alphabet as Amharic but is unintelligible to modern speakers, a bit like Latin.

Our guide is a former engineer who speaks flawless English. Many years ago he got sick and his parents brought him here to be healed. Miraculously he was, and he gave up his job to become a monk. He takes us to every corner of the compound, from the cellar where monks stand in a circle chanting for hours as they lean wearily on staffs, up to the cave of Tekla Heymonot, where holy water drips from the ceiling into blue plastic buckets. He takes us to every place but one–the holy of holies found in every Ethiopian Orthodox Church, where the tabot, a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, is hidden from the sight of all but the priests and monks. The true Ark is said to be in a special building in the northern city of Axum. Only a single caretaker is allowed to gaze upon it.

The best thing about travel by car is seeing the in-between places. Many visitors to Ethiopia bypass the country’s long and often rough roads by flying from city to city. That’s no way to learn about a country. After Debre Libanos the next popular stop on the overland route is the source of the Blue Nile. To be honest it’s nothing more than a geographical curiosity–a muddy little spring that’s considered so holy that visitors can’t photograph it. But getting there proved that the journey is not the destination. Bumping along a rocky back road we spot a horse race in a nearby field. Local farmers, decked out in red and gold costumes, are racing in pairs across a long stretch of pasture marked out with poles as a small crowd cheers them on. We randomly pick our favorites and cheer too.

This of, course, attracts everybody’s attention, and soon we’re encircled by curious kids practicing their schoolbook English. After we decide we’ve stolen enough of the horsemen’s thunder, we say goodbye and go to the source of the Blue Nile. The same thing happens again. Soon the Nile is forgotten and we’re trading English words for Amharic. “Butterfly,” we say, pointing at one flying past. “Birabiro!” shout a dozen kids. “Acacia?” “Graal!” “Pen?” “Esceribto!”

Some of the kids are in high school and have good enough English to carry on a conversation. My wife explains what her work as an astronomer is like and encourages the girls to study science. As I watch her surrounded by these girls, telling them can be anything they want in life, I’m reminded of one of the reasons I married her.

And that’s what a tenth anniversary trip is all about, isn’t it?

World’s oldest Christian monastery gets a remodel

Egypt´s top archaeologist Dr. Zahi Hawass announced the completion of a major remodel for one of Egypt´s most important archaeological treasures.

The Monastery of St. Anthony is believed to be the oldest surviving Christian monastery in the world, having been built to house the grave of one of the founders of monasticism, St. Anthony, when he died in the year 356. A $14.5 million restoration has fixed many of the monastery’s buildings, including the original fourth century church. Workers also installed a modern sewage system to deal with the estimated million visitors a year who come to worship and to admire the colorful paintings in the churches. These paintings have been painstakingly restored. St. Anthony’s Monastery is one of many interesting sights to see in Egypt besides the Pyramids and the Sphinx.

The monastery is nestled deep in the Red Sea Mountains in Egypt’s Eastern Desert. St. Anthony lived in a cave near here and started to attract followers during his lifetime. Unable to shake these eager followers, he established a rule whereby they could live together but still have an ascetic life. His ideas on monasticism were hugely influential on early Christianity. St. Anthony is one the most important saints for Coptic Christians, who make up ten percent of Egypt’s population.%Gallery-65553%

Interfaith tourism in Syria

Who says the Middle East has to be a place of religious tension?

Not the worshipers at Deir Mar Mousa monastery. This medieval Christian monastery is a pilgrimage center for Christians and Muslims alike thanks to an open policy of worship and tolerant religious discussion.

Christians make up about ten percent of Syria’s population and there are churches in many cities, like the one in Hama pictured here. Byzantine monasteries dot the countryside, although most have been empty for centuries.

Deir Mar Mousa is located atop a rugged hill in the desert fifty miles north of Damascus. Long abandoned, its buildings and historic frescoes were restored over the past two decades and it’s now open to all. Pilgrims are welcome to stay the night for free in a stone hut in exchange for light work such as cleaning the dishes. Much of the pilgrims’ time is spent participating in long, patient discussions with people who believe differently than they do. Sounds a bit like the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

You don’t have to be of a particular religion or indeed any religion to stay, but getting there is a bit complicated and you’ll need some basic equipment. Instructions are on the monastery’s website.

The monastery is run by the Jesuit priest Rev. Paolo Dall’Oglio and a group of monks, nuns, and lay volunteers. This group has taken a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience like in most monastic communities, but unusually they have also dedicated themselves to “being in service and love for the Muslim world.” People gather regularly for prayer meetings that involve silent meditation, multilingual services, and interfaith discussion.

Father Dall’Oglio explains his life’s work by saying, “Jesus loves Muslims, the same Jesus who is alive in me.”

When speaking with the New York Times for a recent article, he put it more simply.

“We’re all in this together.”