This historical monastery is founded by Abba ZeMichael , the son of Constantinople king Issac and Queen Edna, in the 6th century. Abba ZeMichael was one of the Nine Saints who came from Syria to Ethiopia to preach Christianity. The other 8 saints call him Aregawi in Ethiopic (Geez language), that means ‘The Elder’ because he was too wise in his childhood.
Before he founded this monastery he searched other places in Northern Ethiopia. But the Angel of God revealed to him as the pillar of light at the Damo Mountain. He became amazed when he saw the mountain and asked himself how could I live there? It’s an isolated mountain, no neighborhood, no water, no other accessible materials for life. It was even impossible to climb. And he started visiting the surrounding. God, then, in his mercy sent his Angel to take up Abune Aregawi.
The helper Angel St. Michael ordered the serpent, which was 60m in length, to take Abune Aregawi up the mountain with appearing his fire sword. As its said that those who believe in the Lord shall take up serpents and if they drink deadly things it shall not harm them. God do not leave his own saints. Abune Aregawi, therefore, saw the light tent and hears the voice of Angles.
On hearing and watches such miracles, Abune Aregawi praised God… saying ‘Hale Luyah to God the Father, Hale Luyah to God the Son, Hale Luyah to God the Holy Spirit’. Due to this, the monastery was first known as ‘Debre Haleluyah’. Gedle Abune Aregawi describes briefly how the name was latter changed to ‘Debre Dame’. The name used to-date. At the very beginning people living around the monastery built long chains of staircases from stone and wood up to the top so that they can access the monastery on foot. One day when King Gebremeskel was there for a celebration and discussed with Abune Aregawi about the staircases, Abune Aregawi requested removal of the staircases and use of ropes made of animal skin in order to memorize how Abune Aregawi was pulled up by the serpent. He literally requested in Geez in such words “Wawse’A Abune Aregawi We Yibelo Dahmimo Luwetuse” (meaning ‘in order to remember how Abune Aregawi was taken up, let’s destroy the staircases’). The king immediately destroyed the staircases and replaced with fur ropes. From the words of Abune Aregawi ‘Dahmimo’ (Destroy it) came the present day Damo to be a name of the monastery, Debre Dahmimo later developed into Debre Damo.
Since then people have been using thick ropes made of animal skins. There are two types of pulling ropes. The first one is used for transporting different kinds of materials, such as foodstuffs, animals, dead bodies, books, holy artifacts, candles etc. The second one is totally different from the first one and is solely used for pulling people up. People familiar with story of Abune Aregawi call it ‘serpent’ and is prepared from five oxen skins. It’s impossible to hold this rope with one hand. It’s very thick and should be firmly hold with both hands. It’s tied around the waist for safety reasons. There are some grooves for landing your feet on the rocky hill. People climbing up using this rope have to go straight 60 meters up. For weak and inexperienced hikers, due to its tiresome nature, most people, especially new hikers are initially pulled up by a monk from atop the rope the first 15 meters and take by themselves the rest 45 meters after a landing break in the middle. When finished with the hiking, people have to walk on 94 more staircases with their confidence left.
Once you arrive on the top of the monastery, you will be on a 1000 meters by 400 meters plateau a little bit closer to the sky. The first church that comes into your sight is the church of St. Marry. Surrounded by stones and trees, its overall appearance speaks a lot about its anciently. Many of its parts are made of stones, lumbers and other old style construction materials. When you get closer, its doors, pillars and paints witness its building civilization and history. Gedle Abune Aregawi described that building of the church took 2 solid years. At the opening ceremony of the church, St. Yared the hymen was honorably attended and gave praise of God.
Next you will find another old church built in the name of Abune Aregawi. This church was built by his successor Abba Mathias. He was disciple of Abune Aregawi. He saw when Abune Aregawi disappear as Henok and Nebyu Elijah into heaven at the age of 99 on the 25th of October (Tikimti 14) right at the place where his memorial church is built. In these two churches, the holly mass takes place on the seasons of Great Lent and Fast of St. Marry every day. Moreover, the holy mass also takes place every month on the day of St. Marry, 21 and the day of Abune Aregawi, 14 and every Sundays.
It was in this oldest standing witness of ancient monasteries that the first doctrine of monks system practiced and later spread into the other parts of the country. Today, there are more than 80 men monks. There are more than 200 houses built of stones at the top of the monastery used for residence, catering, and other services. There is also a ground plus one store and logistics and 150 natural springs and water tanks. There is also a holy water that spring out from the basement (root) of St. Marry Church in which miraculously many patients get healing from their problems. There is also a cemetery for the saints and monks. It gives you a real natural and spiritual satisfaction to observe the greenery plateau of Abune Aregawi and mountainous surroundings.
The monastery of Abune Aregawi has played a significant role in preserving priceless scripts and articles in addition to its spiritual service to the believers. It has been also a point of interest for tourists who enjoy trekking and historic artifacts.