The Church of Debre damo
The architectural design of the church is unique and superb. As Richard Pankhurst described it, the church is simply “a veritable jewel of ancient Ethiopian architecture.” Built with layers of stone and layers of wood, it is 20 m deep and 9 m wide. It displays the “monkey-head” style of Aksumite construction. Over the centuries, the original church at Debre Damo has sustained repeated destructions and restorations. For example, it was modified in 1948 by Derek Mathews. Fortunately, the edifice has not lost its original features.
The monastery is placed on a flat-topped mountain with no obvious access to the top. Hanging from above, a plaited 15-meter rope (the “jende”) awaits visitors to pull themselves up to the top of the sandstone cliff. As a safety measure, inexperienced visitors need to tie their waists by the additional rope provided by the church and climb up the rough cliff. According to oral tradition, the rope symbolizes the serpent that was commanded by God to safely drop the founder monk on the top of the mountain, which is 1000m long and 500m wide (roughly equal to 60 FIFA-standard stadia). To some degree, the natural footholds and handgrips make the journey to the “heaven of heavens” a little less difficult. But climbing up the cliff requires no less gut than skill. By all measures, Debre Damo, isolated from all earthly temptations, is an ideal site for monastic life. It also served as a safe haven for some Ethiopians. Notably, Emperor Libne Dengil is said to have sought protection in the monastery during the rebellion Ahmed Gragn had launched against the Ethiopian state.
On the top of the mountain there is a secondary church from where the founder is believed to have vanished. The monastery is inhabited by hundreds of monks who live in the stone-and-mud dwellings or hidmos – a common architectural style in countryside Tigrai. There are several cisterns hewn out of rock. Essentially rain-water reservoirs, these cisterns are the only year-round source of water for the monks and their students who reside in the monastery.
It is good to note that women – and any female creatures for that matter – are not allowed to enter the monastery.