National Parks and World Heritage Sites

Saint and Serpent: Legend of The Cliffhanging Monastery in Ethiopia

Nearer my Lord to Thee

Legend has it that Abune Aragawi the saint who founded the cliff-top monastery, managed to reach there aided by a serpent which carried him on top of the mountain.

Debre Damo, also spelled Debre Dammo, Dabra Dāmmo or Däbrä Dammo, is the name of a flat-topped mountain, or amba, and a 6th-century monastery in Tigray Region of Ethiopia.

The mountain is a steeply rising plateau of trapezoidal shape, about 1,000 by 400 meters in dimension.

It is perched at an elevation of 2,216 meters above sea level.

Located north of Bizet, and north-west of Adigrat, in the Mehakelegnaw Zone of the Tigray Region, close to the border with Eritrea, climbing the monastery is one of the trying feats that ordinary humans get to attempt.

The monastery rising plateau of trapezoidal shape is believed to have been built during the reign of King Gebre Meskel in the 6th century AD.

To reach there one has to scale up to the cliff of the plateau tied to a leather rope on the waist.

A muscular monk then will pull the rope to let you get into a small doorway. It is a cliffhanger in real sense enough to curdle your blood.

But the excitement upon reaching the mountain top is something worth to fight for.

Monks dwelling at the monastery are friendly and welcoming, this gives people more zest and energy to conquer the steep cliff.

From up above one gets offered with panoramic views of the beautiful fields and mountains of Tigray as well.

Most of the time, the monks spent solitary way of life, and comes out from their dwellings for church sermons only. To make both ends meet, the monks engage themselves in farming and animal rearing activities.

They have dug wells on the top of the rock to retain water. The wells are green, covered by mosses which keep the water pure and drinkable.

Debre Damo has unique architectural style compared with most Ethiopian monasteries.

Going to Heaven is like walking on tight rope

It was built with curved wood panels, painted ceilings and walls dedicated to the legend of Abune Aregawi, one of the ‘Nine Saints’, that used to stand at the top of the cliff and decided that the plateau above him was a suitable place to live a solitary life.

He finally made the monastery his abode and it eventually got named after its founder, Abune Aregawi the Debre Damo.

The hermitage received its first archeological examination by E. Litton, who led a German expedition to northern Ethiopia in the early 20th century.

By the time that David Buxton saw the ancient church in the mid-1940s, he reportedly found it ‘on the brink of collapse.’

Some few years later, an English architect, Drummond H Matthews, assisted in the restoration of the building, which included the rebuilding of one of its wood and stone walls in the characteristic style of Aksumite architecture.