The Monastery At Debre Damo – History the Origin of Ethiopian Self-Confidence

7 mins read

The monastery at Debre Damo.
The monastery at Debre Damo.



No wonder the monastery at Debre Damo has survived unmolested for some 900 years among the vast Tigrayan Mountains of Northern Ethiopia.

Getting to it is arduous – the last stretch is achieved via an 80 foot rope. A few feet from the top my arms gave out and I couldn’t move. I dangled desperately searching for a foothold. There wasn’t one. The drop was dizzying. After what seemed like an hour, I felt the second rope, made of strips of cowhide stitched together, take my weight and I was ignominiously pulled up to the ledge. The strong young monk who had hauled me up took my trembling hand and greeted me formally.

But it was worth it. It was the last day before the lenten fast begins and the monks had just slaughtered an ox and brewed millet beer. We sat on the earth floor of one of the round stone huts while a monk skillfully hacked the beast to pieces, hanging the bits on string and beams around the hut to dry. The pottery bowls and mugs on the benches and floor could have been found in any ancient history museum. Apart from the steel machete and a few Chinese-made enamel plates, there was little here that was not from the Iron Age.

The monastery is on the flat top of a vast sheer-sided mountain. An emperor once took refuge there. The church – rebuilt in the 1920s – is in the old Aksumite design with alternate layers of stone blocks and wooden beams. Inside there are wonderful carvings of birds and animals in the ceiling and on the walls and the usual hagiographic religious paintings whose style has not changed for hundreds of years.

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Over the centuries the monks have dug deep ponds on the top of the rock to retain rain water. The sunken pools are green, covered in pond weed – which keeps the water pure and drinkable.

But this was new compared to the remains I saw at Yeha, a few miles away. Here a substantial, squarely-built tower survives about 40 feet high. The walls of stone blocks are cut as if by machine and laid last week. Perfect lines and layers. 700 BC. No one knows what it was for but nearby a team of German archeologists are excavating what looks like a temple or palace of the same period. 100 miles inland on a mountain ledge looking out across a vast valley, it is almost identical to buildings found in Yemen across the Red Sea of the same period.

Ethiopia is old. It was a powerful well-organised state when Britain was inhabited by warring tribes living in mud huts. It was Christian long before most of Europe. Going back further, the Steeles at Aksum are 300 BC. They make Stonehenge look crude.

The problem arises when you ask your university-educated guide – or any passing Ethiopian – what is the story of Ethiopia. You will be told as factually as last week’s Premiership scores (another Ethiopian passion) that it begins with the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon. He fancied her and tricked her into sleeping with him and getting her pregnant with King Menelik I who is regarded as the founder of Ethiopia. But Solomon also gave her the Ark of the Covenant as a parting gift and she took it back to Aksum where it resides in a dull 19th century building next to a huge 1960s church. An elegant new classical building is being constructed next to house the tablets of stone on which God wrote the rules for mankind and then gave to Moses.

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You will be told this as simply as if it was yesterday’s weather. Can I see them? “No you can’t.” What state are they in? “Well the roof of the old building has been leaking so they have built a new one beside it to protect them. The shrine is kept by a monk who never leaves the building and will die there. I saw him take his evening stroll around it.

Ethiopian kings have always used the Ark of the Covenant to justify their rule and even today’s rulers of Ethiopia (who began their political careers as the Marxist Leninist League of Tigray) would not dare question it.

On the way to the monastery I passed through a town called Adua. Here in 1897 the Ethiopian army defeated the Italians and prevented the country being taken over by Europeans – the only part of Africa, apart from Liberia – to do so. That great event, combined with a self confidence born of being a Christian state before most European nations, gives Ethiopians great pride and a sense of where they come from, who they are and where they are going. When I suggested to an old Ethiopia hand that this might explain why Ethiopians treat Europeans as equals he said: “No they don’t. They think they are superior.”

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Of course the question you have been dying to ask is how did the first monk get up to the Debre Damo rock 800 years ago? The Ethiopians have already thought of that. A holy snake called Zonda let down his tail and helped the founder of the monastery, Gondar, to climb up. There are pictures of this historic event all over the monastery.

As I came to the ledge to climb back down to the 21st Century again I looked at the end of the rope the monk had pulled me up on. It wasn’t attached to anything.

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa; altered states, ordinary miracles. Follow Richard on twitter @DowdenAfrica


  1. To me there are number theories that have been and still being presented by “Ethiopians” and other who simply believe everything they heard or read. These myths presented as true history do not withstand serious scrutiny. Some of those centuries old myths are mentioned in this article. I hope the site’s/blog’s admin will post this comment of mine. Let’s get started.

    1. “It is almost identical to buildings found in Yemen across the Red Sea of the same period”
    I wonder if these “buildings” were built by the Yemenies? Or, is it possible that the people who inhabit in the Northern highland of what is today known as “Ethiopia” migrated from Yemen?
    2. “Ethiopia is Old”
    When one says Ethiopia is old, does it mean Ethiopia as country is old or the people who proudly claim the Ethiopian identity today have always been known as “Ethiopians” for centuries? If so, how come today’s Ethiopia had been referred as Abyssinia by the international organizations such as League of Nations as recent as 70 years ago? How about the word Ethiopia in ancient Greek vocabulary which refers to people of dark skin? Was the Ethiopia in the Bible refers to people of today’s Ethiopia? Or, does it refer to all people with dark complexion?
    3. “It was powerful well-organised state when Britain was inhabited by warring tribes living in mud huts”
    According to the Abyssinians themselves, for centuries, they fought each other along tribal lines – Gondar verses Menze, Tigre verses Amhara, Minillik verses Yohannes. Last time I checked on numerous books, the British Kingdom took the balance of world power after the fall of the Roman Empire several centuries ago. How is it that one dares to compare Abyssinia with British when it comes to “well-organized state”? I thought the Abyssinians are the ones that are still to this day living in mud huts not the British.
    4. “No they don’t. They think they are superior” meaning Ethiopians think they are superior over Europeans?
    In what terms? The notion that one society is superior over the other be it Ethiopians or Europeans is egotistic that lives only in the mind of the claimer. This is self-evident that whoever bears that mindset is Racist!!!
    5. “….How did the first monk get up to Debre Damo …..A holy snake called Zonda let down his tail and helped the founder of the monastery.”
    This article itself says that Ethiopia was Christian long before most of Europe. I’m Christian and learnt the Bible for the most part of my education and NEVER, NEVER, NEVER heard of holy snake. Was it different kind of bible that this people believe in?

  2. Legit,

    Yes you are right there is not holy snakes. However, if the real Holy Sprite is with you can order devil to do what every you like to do. Remember what Jesus said about his if you believe you can order or …. …. and also read what King Solomon did by ordering devil. …..There are so many places in the Bible of that type if you are able to read bible and of course if you believe it. As to your question about Ethiopia in the bible you may even see historical cults . Forget about the ark just look at religious cultural sharing b/n jewsh and the highlanders in many aspects,……. Also the river of Ghion /blue nile in the bible check it, felasha or bete Israel . I do not know your level in international news and issues of genetic screening output check all that there are also numerous historical evidence you are ready to learn and Go and find it. On the new testament, Ethiopian man was readying a part of bible while traveling to Jerusalem. Can you find any African nation that was worshiping God during that moment any trace of of truth from Kenya, Sudan, I can say no. Just let me tell you one simple example , Which country gave the Book of Henok to the World Bible community ? it was lately confirmed by other findings…
    Please check it .I guess you are starting to learn this issues

    Good Luck

  3. I think it is worth to note that most of 21st Century modernization has indeed created the confused man!
    Why can’t the holy snake be possible? After all the monastery is pre-new testament! Most of what we read in the Bible is open to the modern person’s interpretation of only what the modern person in their slightest can imagine what truly the pre New Testament era would have been like, let alone the geographic outlay and the governing policies of the time.

    It however cannot be truly realised because the simple people of the ancient age could have had the holy snake encounter and such as opposed to the modern man that tries to find scientific reasoning in about anything in their pathetic life, without realising that no matter how much modern reason you have, it can never truly stave off the constant: Death.

    It is better to believe that anything is possible. As for the comparison in the post above,the point the individual commenting has ignored that, British acquired an `organised state’ upon its mingling with countries outside the Great Britain boundaries like the Romans that brought ordered structure to Britain. Without Britain’s interaction with the greater part of the World, it would have never gained any sense of structure.

    The Ethiopian claim to be better stems from being Christians earlier than most Europeans, and it is commendable, whether racist or otherwise.

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