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Debre Damo

Some four hours drive from Axum – plus a further two hours stiff uphill walk from the point where the road ends – lies the spectacular monastery of Debra Damo, situated on an isolated cliff top in one of the wildest parts of Tigray.

Damo is unique and unforgettable although, as with most Ethiopian monasteries, women are not allowed to enter it. Even so, there is a daunting obstacle to the monastery: the only means of access is a climb of twenty-five meters up a sheer cliff. Monks lower a safety rope which visitors tie around their waists. Then they use a second, thicker rope to climb with. Some may reflect, as they make their way to the top, that because of this arduous, dangerous ascent the art treasures of Debra Damo have remained intact through the monastery-s 1,400 tumultuous years of history.

The treasures include an extensive collection of illuminated manuscripts – among them the oldest surviving fragments of texts anywhere in Ethiopia – and intricate carvings on the beams and ceiling of the ancient church around which the monastery is built. There are no murals as such, but a large number of paintings are preserved there including several that depict the legend of the foundation of Debra Damo by Abuna Aragawi. He is a Saint who is believed to have been lifted onto the cliff top by a giant serpent. According to the legend expressed in a number of the paintings, the Archangel Gabriel stood by with a sword ready to slay the snake if it attacked Abuna Aragawi. It did not, however, and wrapped in its coils the Saint reached the top safely, dropping his cross on a stone, which is today kissed by all who enter the monastery.