The monastery of Debre Damo is notable for its 6th century Axumite stone church, as well as for its impregnable cliff top position. This isolated relic lay on a 2800m high amba (flat topped hill) covering an area of 0.5m2 and sheer cliffs. The flat topped ”Imba” (plateau) measures about 1000 meters from northeast to southwest and 500 meters from northwest to southeast. It is surrounded by sheer cliffs. Ascent to the mountaintop is made possible via a 15-meter plaited leather rope (the ”Jende”) that hangs from the summit. The church is dedicated to its founder, Abune Aregawi, one of the ‘nine saints’ who taught gospel in the 6th century. According to local tradition, Abune Aregawi is believed to have been taken to the top of the Imba with the help of a serpent that was commanded to do so by God. Today, the ‘Jende’ symbolizes the miraculous serpent. Visitors need to be tightly tied up around their waists by the supplementary rope as a means of additional safety. Female visitors are not allowed to access the church. On top of the Imba, there are two churches. The main one, 20m deep and 9m wide, was constructed under the auspices of Emperor Gebre Meskel. He was the Axumite king who reigned in the 6th century. It is believed to have been built of the very site where the serpent had safely dropped the founder. Described by Richard Pankurst as ”a veritable jewel of ancient Ethiopian architecture”, the church is built following an Aksumite style of construction: layers of stone alternated with layers of wood. The walls are constructed of stones and strengthened with longitudinal beams, which are themselves fixed to the walls with projecting woods known as ”monkey heads.” The walls of the church show resemblance to the decorative styles displayed on the obelisks of Aksum. The monolithic pillars, the walls, the beams, the wooden doors, and windows reflect Aksumite architecture. On the ceiling of the sanctuary, one can observe wooden carvings of cattle, elephants and water birds. Ancient stone pillars can also be inspected in the sanctuary and the Holy of Holies. The church has undergone few restoration works, and therefore has retained its original structure. The second church is built on the eastern verge of the Imba. According to local tradition, this is the site where Abune Aregawi vanished unnoticed, hence ”Misiwarom” (literally a place where he vanished from). It is a small church only frequented by hermits living on the Imba. Debre Damo is second to none in terms of monastic life in Ethiopia. On the top of the Imba, there are hundreds of resident monks. These monks have greatly contributed toward the development of church education and literature in Ethiopia. With this regard, Debre Damo has won unparalleled fame and reputation. This monastery has also served as a safe haven for Ethiopian kings that were pursued by enemies. The prominent example is that of Atse Lebne Dengle of the 16th century, who sought refuge during the fight of Ahmed Gragn’s army. The monastery of Debre Damo possesses many treasures including ancient manuscripts and crosses. Visiting the monastery emotionally takes you back to the distant past of Ethiopian religious life. Professor Richard Pankhurst rightly suggests, ” It takes today’s traveler into a past age and leaves him with a deeper understanding of Ethiopia’s age-old and unique civilization than mere words can give.”

Other Rock Churches of Tigray

Gheralta Cluster

The Wukro Degum road leads west to Gheralta, its rock crowned peak, together with far reaching plains, enclosed by a chain of mountains, casts a panoramic view. George Gerster, the Swiss photographer, writes in his book, Churches in Rock,...

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Atsbi Wonberta Cluster

Atsbi Wonberta is located east of Wukro and bears the churches of Mikael Barka, Debreselam Mikael and Mikael Imba. These splendidly executed edifices are found perched on a mountain commanding a view of their surroundings. Mikael Barka Mikael...

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Wukro Cluster

The only sizable town between Adigrat and Mekelle, with its relaxed if rather nondescript character and forms a convenient base from which to explore the under list as well as other a number of rock hewn churches. There are major rock hewn...

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Tsaeda Imba [Teka Tesfai Cluster]

Along the Mekelle – Adigrat road, 25km after Wukro, an escarpment better known as Tsada Imba, meaning White Mountain, accompanies the road along the route to Sinkata. The rocky but scenic area is the home of one of the highly sacred places in...

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Monastery of Gunda Gundo

Gunda Gundo is accessed from the town of Edagahamus, 100km after Mekelle. It has an area that lay between a sheer side cliff in the west and an escarpment that drops towards the Afar depression. From this settlement, a 24km rough road leads to...

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