Those wishing to journey into the past ought to go to Debra Damo. It is the oldest Ethiopic monastery and a symbol of the Ethiopian monastic experience. Debra Damo is found 90 km north-east of Axum, immersed in a spectacular landscape with deep canyons and surrounded by many ambas – mountains with a flat top – and a few high peaks. The monastery was built here, at over 2200 meters of altitude, in the small space afforded by an amba.
Once you reach a dusty village of the same name, you will have to climb a tortuous road up the mountain and, after a long journey through the fields, ford a torrent to reach the base of the amba. The only way in into the monastery is a 15 meters high rock face. You will have to climb with the help of leather ropes. Local men (women are not allowed in the monastery) and guides do climb with no efforts. Less agile visitors are first secured with a second rope. The short climb is hard, even though there are some stones and holes where to get some grip.
When Islam arrived in the region, there were repeated wars and a state of insecurity. During the worst times, the royal family found refuge here in Debra Damos. The inaccessibility of the monastery makes it a perfect place where to weather out storms of many kinds. In fact, Debra Damos was also used as a prison where to confine members of the royal family when they became unwelcomed at court.
Once you are up there, the mountains bordering with Eritrea seem close enough, just few miles away. About one hundred and fifty monks and two hundred deacons live here. Most of them occupy small houses, built in stone and with a terrace for roof. A few buildings have a second floor. Windows are few and square in shape. The monks live out of the little agriculture and husbandry they can manage in the amba. The area is small, and it is mostly rocky. Inside the house one sees a rudimentary bed, a few blankets and little more.
Some monks live as hermits. They live in small grottos near the smaller church of Debra Damo. Rain is the only source of water. It is collected in wells hewn in the rocks, and then distributed with buckets. On the way towards the main church, one sees a number of grottos closed by a wall of stones. Inside there are the remains of monks from the past. Some of the grottos are not well sealed, and it is possible to make out the occasional skull and other bones.
Tradition has it that this monastery was built by Abuna Aregawi in the 6th century. While there might be some truth in this popular folk tales, the present set up cannot be so old. The main church at Debra Damo – Enda Abuna Aragawi – was built between the 8th and 10th century. Some parts have been rebuilt, others added in time. The church is built on the eastern edge of the amba, and it is a splendid example of Axumite architecture. The external walls are built with a special technique. Flat stones are places in strata and, once in a while, wooden beams criss-cross the face of the building. The beams are left to project a little outside the wall, and they are locally referred to as ‘monkey heads’.
At the corners, large blocks of stone are craftily put together, as in a giant puzzle. Originally, the walls were plastered, but the plaster peeled off and today one can see the whole structure of the walls, with a nice chromatic effect. Once the eye recognizes the Axumite structure, it is easy to spot where the monks added rooms or opened windows, using styles that were developed after Axum lost its power. It is so that some structures remind the visitor of the monolithic churches of Lalibela.
This church was restored in the 1940s, when a wall had to be rebuilt following the original building technique. Thomas Packenham, who visited the site in 1955, wrote that as he enter he “could dimly make out a series of wood-carvings: peacocks drinking from a vase, a lion and a monkey, several fabulous animals. The textiles were clearly a copy of Syrian cloth imported in Ethiopia long time ago”. Debre Damo remains an important centre for the Ethiopian monastic movement and, even though lacking the artistic flavour of other site, it is a pleasant surprise to visitors.