A journey back in time is certainly what Debre Damo ofers, the oldest preserved Ethiopian monastery, and an emblematic situation of the Ethiopian monastic experience.
At about ninety kilometers north-east of Axum – in a spectacular landscape, marked by deep canyons and framed by the flat profile of large ambe, the mountains with the summit on a plateau and here and there, in the background, by higher peaks – Debre Damo is located at over 2000 meters, on the surface of a small amba (half a square kilometer). From the dusty village of the same name, one goes up a stony winding road, and then through a stretch of countryside and after fording a stream you arrive at the base of the amba. The only ‘entrance’ to the monastery consists of a 15 meter rock wall, from which a rope made of braided leather strips hangs: enough for the monks, guides and locals going up to the monastery to climb effortlessly to the edge, taking advantage of stone footings and cavities to place their feet and hold on with their hands, while visitors (women are not allowed) are prudently harnessed with a second cord.
Because of its inaccessibility, in the course of the Christian-Muslim wars Debre Damo also served as a refuge for the royal family. From above, the border with Eritrea, which runs through the mountains, appears very close: a few kilometers as the crow flies. Approximately one hundred and fifty monks and two hundred deacons live in a village of low stone houses, usually with a roof terrace, sometimes with a second floor and small windows: they live off as much agriculture and livestock as is possible given the little land available. The interior of the houses is modest: in one corner, a simple bed with some blankets, and little else. Some monks live in the condition of hermitage in small caves near the lower church of Debre Damo, placed along a path that leads to the ‘entrance’ to the monastery: the mouth of some caves, which contain the remains of monks, is walled with stones, but from other open ones, skulls and shinbones peep out. For humans and animals the only water is rainwater collected in wells dug into the rock.
Difficult to date (the structure may have been redone), possibly dating back to between the eighth and tenth centuries, the church of Enda Abuna Aragawi, located on the eastern edge of the amba, is a splendid example of Aksumite architecture. The outer walls are of layers of stones laid horizontally, interspersed with wooden beams, and dotted with the protruding heads of the crossbeams. The side edges of the facade are made up of large stone blocks shaped and inserted with precision. Originally the walls were plastered, whereas today it is the exposed materials that compose a fine chromatic effect. Made intuitively by sight to forms of Enda Abuna Aragawi Aksumite mould, it is not difficult to trace the influence on successive architectural examples, for example on some of the impressive monolithic churches of Lalibela.
Gondar, the iconographic meaning of Christianity
The spirit of Ethiopian Christianity is not only expressed in architectural works of great value and originality, but in a wide range of other artistic creations: in the wall paintings, which together with the architecture is the most important aspect of Ethiopia’s artistic wealth, as well as illuminated manuscripts, benedictional and processional crosses and in the liturgical furnishings. Of relatively recent date – probably the nineteenth century – one of the symbols of Ethiopian Christianity (and one of the images that are most frequently associated with it), is the firmament of winged heads of cherubs, deployed by nines in sixteen rows, which from the ceiling above overlooks those entering the church of Debra Berhan Selassie in Gondar, the town that is especially famous for its castles. The walls of the church, perhaps the one most venerated by the faithful, are for the most part covered by paintings, and testify to the importance of the element of iconography in Ethiopian Christianity: the Trinity, Christ on the cross, the nativity, moments from the life of Christ and the passion, King David playing the harp, St. George slaying the dragon, Mohammed on a camel pulled by a devil, and a very lively representation of hell. (L.M.)