Ethiopia’s Monastic Highs
Posted by addisethiopia on June 21, 2013
My note: Great story, amazing pictures (excluding ‘Manchester’! Perhaps, the European Union could take some notice of the place, in case it needs some assistance from Prester John in the near future.
Alastair Sooke finds inspiration in the extraordinary churches of Ethiopia and scales a cliff to visit one of the oldest buildings in the world still in use – which his grandfather restored in the Forties.
“Are you going to climb barefoot or wearing boots?”
In front of me was a wall of creamy-brown rock, mottled with footholds worn through centuries of use. My destination was situated nearly 60ft above my head: the threshold to the ancient monastery of Debra Damo, which occupies the summit of a rocky outcrop, entirely surrounded by cliffs, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, a few miles south of the border with Eritrea. The only way to enter it is to haul yourself up a plaited-leather rope that hangs from a ledge adjoining the monastery’s gatehouse.
Thankfully, for outsiders like me, there is an additional strap that functions as a rudimentary safety harness, held taut by one or two monks above. After considering the question of my gung-ho guide, I unlaced my boots, in the hope that unshod feet would yield better grip, and began to heave. A few minutes later, my biceps burning, I clambered into the arms of the middle-aged monk who had been helping to pull me up. The hard part was behind me: the rest of the climb could be undertaken using steps.
Although this was my first visit to Debra Damo, I already felt some acquaintance with the monastery. This is because my maternal grandfather, Derek Matthews, who was an architect, lived among the monks here for several months while he restored the larger of the religious community’s two churches in the late 1940s. This crumbling structure has been used continuously for Christian worship since it was built, probably during the sixth century AD. My grandfather, who died in 2009, described it as “one of the oldest buildings in the world still in use”. As a child, I often heard about his time there, and imagined him as a nimble 28 year-old, hurtling up and down the leather rope with the sure-footed alacrity of a vervet monkey. At the end of last year, I decided to visit it for myself.