Debre Damo monastery is situated on an isolated mountain in northern part of Tigray. It is unique compared with most Ethiopian monasteries. It was built, in the sixth century AD, with curved wood panels, painted ceilings and walls dedicated to the legend of Saint (Abune) Aregawi. The history of Debre Damo is centred on the “Nine Saints” who came to Ethiopia from Syria to spread Christianity in the Tigray region. One of them was Saint Aregawi who settled on the mountain of Debre Damo. The other eight saints settled around Tigray countryside and all have their own church named after them.
The mountain, where Debre Damo sits, is steeply rising plateau of trapezoidal shape, about 1000 by 400 meters in dimension, having an elevation of 2216 meters above sea level, and located west of Adigrat in the Zone of the Tigray Region. The monastery, accessible only by rope up a sheer cliff, is known for its collection of manuscripts, and having the earliest existing church building in Ethiopia still in its original style.
The Debre Damo monastery, which dates back to early Aksumite times, is said to possess the Ethiopia’s oldest existing church. Legend has it that Abba Aragawi, one of the ‘Nine Saints’, while wandering at the foot of the cliff, judged that the plateau above him was a suitable place to live a solitary life. God, hearing his wish, commanded a snake living on the mountain-top to stretch down and lift up the holy man, who made Debre Damo his abode.
he visitor, lacking the kind snake that helped the monastery’s founder to ascend the mountain, has to go up using a rope lowered by the friendly monks. The summit, when eventually conquered 24 metres (78 feet) later, offers panoramic views and complete seclusion and peace for the 600 or so monks and deacons who live there.
The beams and ceiling of the ancient Debre Damo church – around which the monastery is built – are beautifully decorated with carved wooden panels depicting lion, elephant, rhinoceros, snakes, gazelle, antelope, giraffe, and camels. A large number of paintings are preserved there, including several depicting Abba Aragawi’s legendary foundation of Debre Damo.
Debre Damo is magnificent in terms of its location and extensive collection of priceless manuscripts that have remained intact until today. It has become a prominent monastic and educational centre for the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. Many books have been written there and distributed to churches throughout Ethiopia.
Debre Damo is only accessible by climbing up by a rope, which is made of “plaited leather”, lowered from the cliffs, which visitors tie around their waist and are then pulled up by a monk at the top of the cliffs. It is only accessible to men and male animals. Women and even female animals are forbidden to set a foot into the monastery, and must remain under the cliffs and pray from there.
The feast of Saint (Abune) Aregawi is celebrated on October 14 Ethiopian calendar (October 24 Gregorian calendar) which culminates in a pilgrimage to Debre Damo from all over the country.