Debra Damo - the cliff top monastery

Axsum Travel Blog

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Debra Damo
October 6th 2005
Today we hired a 4WD with driver and guide and travelled 86km northeast to a place called Debre Damo - a cliff top monastery.

We set off at 6am and reached our destination around 3 and a half hours later. We were in an ancient looking landrover on an unsealed road. It was a very rough ride, but the car coped well.

As we turned off to travel the final 11km to Debre Damo, we saw lots of soldiers. The border with Eritrea was only 6km away, and there was a rope across the road, forcing us to stop. A soldier with a rifle came over to the car, saw us in the back, then smiled and waved. He spoke to the driver and took his licence, which he could collect on the way back. This measure is to ensure people don't cross the border into Eritrea.

We also gave a few soldiers and some monks a lift at various tims during the day.

Cameron going up via a leather rope
They all greated us with 'hello' and a smile.
We have really been struck with how friendly, polite, and respectful Ethiopians have been to us.

When we got to Debre Damo, there were a couple of village huts grouped together at the base of the cliff.
Our guide took us in one of them for a rest.
An old monk with a long beard and huge smiling teeth, welcomed us in, laughing, smiling, and bowing at us,saying "very good".
We sat around in this dark village hut. There were about five men and one woman (who was doing everything as the men sat)
She cooked up some meat for breakfast and then treated us to some coffee prepared in the traditional way. First she roasted the beans in a small saucepan (over some embers), ground up the beans in a mortar and pestle, boiled some water in a special pot, and then poured the coffee ceremoniosly into tiny cups (with lots of sugar).

I don't usually drink coffee, but this was pretty good. Ethiopia is known for is coffee and this is virtually it's only export.

The monk was a funny old fellow. He asked through our guide where we were from and when told he laughed and nodded and said, "Oh yes, Australia, very good"
He asked the lady for a beer (which she has a stock of). Our guide said, "today is his vacation so he wants a beer."
He didn't want the home brew though. He had a taste for the expensive bottled stuff.
All the others were drinking the local stuff (breakfast time I might add). They offered some to Cameron. It was so thick and brown, but he said it was actually OK.

Eventually we left the hut and made our way to go to the monastery. It is perched on top of a tabletop mountain with sheer cliffs on all sides.

To get up, a long rope is lowered down to help you climb up.
There is another rope to tie around your middle with a monk up the top, hauling you up if need be.
The monks themselves however don't use this second safety rope, and scamper up the cliff in a jiffy.
All of the monks we met were extremely friendly and welcoming.

Women aren't allowed up to the monastery (nor are any female animals), so I watched Cameron climb up and then sat at the base of the cliff and read a book (with a couple of ever present kids watching me of course).

From what Cameron reported, there were many stone buildings to house the 100 monks and 200 deacons (monks in training). The monastery has been there for 1400 years. There was a large church and also farm animals (male only) and wells for water.

The cliffs had caves in them that served as the cemetary. The view from the top was spectacular.
The monks are largely self sufficient and appreciate gifts such as sugar, coffee, or honey instead of money.

As Cameron had 'mens club' on top of the mountain, I had 'kids club' at the bottom. I was surrounded by an evergrowing group of curious children.
How was I going to entertain them?...
They were fascinated with, and kept inspecting Cameron's digital watch that I was wearing. I showed them the buttons and the stop watch. We all counted from 1-10 and I tried to explain that the role of a stopwatch is for timing you do things, for example when you run. I imitated running, though I was sitting down and I don't think they understood what I was on about!
Cameron was still not back.
Climbing to the top of Debra Damo with a leather rope

kids club
... what to do....I pulled out the Lonely Planet. That was a huge hit. All the children looked at all the photos around 5 times each.
Some photos showed people from different parts of Ethiopia, including the lip stretching tribe from the south. They gasped at the sight of them. I could have been showing them somebody from Mars, let alone somebody from their own country.
I showed them a map of Ethiopia and pointed out their neighbouring countries - Sudan, Somalia, Kenya.... no look of recognition...
What else to do...... I know, lets write our name in the back of my book. That occupied a bit of time as they wrote them in Ahmaric and the English. They then all took turns pronouncing their names for me.
Mmm.... Cameron still not back..
I was scraping the bottom of the barrel here.

How about reading names of Ethiopian food listed in the book! Some of the foods they didn't know, but then when I read out something they recognised they cheered and laughed.
After this, there was more looking at the pictures in the guide book.
After they got bored with this, I was really getting desperate... I pulled out 2 australian 20c pieces that I had in my bag to use for a phone call when we get back to australia.
They passed them round. I pointed out the platypus and then showed them the queen on the back of the coin. I also showed them the dates. One coin was dirty and from 1966. The other was shiny and from 2005. I was going to explain about the dates but thought twice. Even if they could understand what I was on about, they would have no concept of 2005.

Ethiopia works on the Julian calender, 7 years behind, and it is currently 1998!

Cameron was finally back and it was soon time to farewell my new found friends and head back to Axsum.

The previous day at around 6pm, we had planned to meet our guide and driver to discuss our trip to Debre Damo.However, we also needed some food and water to take along, so I left Cameron to deal with them, and went down the street alone to buy some things, as the shops would soon be closing. There was no question about this being an unsafe thing to do.
I went in to a tiny 'supermarket' which was what I imaginined a corner store in the 1930s to be like. There was a bit of everything in the store, all crammed in, plus old fashioned scales, and sugar in huge sacks.
The shopkeeper, a young man, was so friendly and polite to me.

He put all my things in a box, tied it up with rope and almost bowed to me as I left. his younger brother and his friend (teenagers) appeared out of nowhere and insisted on carrying the box back to the hotel for me.
As we went along we talked about Ethiopia and Australia. They told me about their school and their hopes to go to university.
Like all the other young people we've met, they had a real desire to learn, to get the best education they could, and make the best of themselves that they possibly could.

The next day we checked out and headed to the airport to go to our next destination - Africa camelot, Gonder.
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Debra Damo
Debra Damo
Climbing to the top of Debra Damo …
Climbing to the top of Debra Damo…
Kids club at the bottom of the cli…
Kids club at the bottom of the cl…
photo by: rosemary_mcandrew