Actually, it’s a panoramic assembly of three photos, Kodachrome slides that I took on 4 August 1970, on one of my trips to Debre Damo (sometimes spelled Debra Damo), a well-known Ethiopian Orthodox monastery in northern Tigray Province, not far from the border with Eritrea. In this panorama, Debre Damo is the large flat mountain on the left side.
Debre is one of the words for mountain in Ge’ez, the liturgical language of Ethiopia which bears a similar relation to the modern languages Tigrinya and Amharic as Latin has to Italian and French. Usually, when the name of a mountain includes Debre, it is a holy place such as a monastery, and generally one of great antiquity and historical importance.
Another word used for a mountain like Debre Damo is amba, which often is used approximately the same as the Spanish word mesa – a flat-topped mountain. Clearly both terms apply. This is a photo of the amba which I took at the same time as the one I combined with two of a traditional house to create the panorama.
The Empire of Aksum, which later became known as Ethiopia, was officially converted to Christianity in around 350 C.E. by the Emperor Ezana. Legend says that he was converted by two young Syrian Christians who had been shipwrecked on the Red Sea coast of the Empire, but Ezana’s primary motive for making Christianity the state religion was to cement trade relations with Rome and Byzantium, and Aksum grew as rich and powerful through their monopoly of trade in frankincense, spices, and other luxury goods as the Oil States are today.
According to tradition, a group of Syrian monks travelled to Aksum sometime in the 6th Century and spread the religion among the people withe the support of Emperor Gebre Mesqel whose name means Servant of the Cross. Remembered as the Nine Syrian Saints, they built monasteries and spread the Syrian Orthodox practices that had been introduced initially two centuries before.
The best-known of the monasteries founded by the Nine Saints is Debre Damo, established by Abuna Aregawi (also known as Za-Mika’el ‘Aragawi). The legend tells that Aregawi was led by divine inspiration to the base of the amba, with instructions to build his church on its summit. The Archangel Michael appeared to command the giant serpent who lived there to lower his tail and draw the saint to the summit. This painting, which is kept in the treasury on top of Debre Damo, depicts the founding of the monastery. To this day, the only access to the top is by climbing a thick, braided rawhide rope, in memory of the serpent whose tail raised Abuna Aregawi.
I’ll have much more to say about this monastery and my several visits there in future posts.
In addition to the amba, the panoramic photo in my header shows a traditional stone house which stands along the roadside leading to Debre Damo. Here’s a view of the road taken from near the house, looking back toward the main highway.
There are many styles of stone house to be found in highland Eritrea and northern Ethiopia, many of which are regional variants on a basic style which has changed little since the rise of the Aksumite Empire 2000 years ago: rectangular stone structures, often with multiple small units enclosed in a courtyard wall, some with two stories, and with strong wood-framed doors and windows of a style unchanged from the palaces of Aksum. I’ll have more to say about Aksum, its architectural styles, and the archaeology of Aksumite sites and their predecessors, as well as more recent styles and cultures,
For now, I’ll show the three original photos that I assembled in Photoshop into the panorama above. First is a view of the amba, with part of the enclosing wall that surrounds the house. Note that this was taken during the rainy season, which provided a particularly spectacular sky.
The central photo shows the courtyard wall and gate, behind which the house can be seen on a higher level behind and to the right of the courtyard. That courtyard gate is an example of the Aksumite door style I mentioned above.
That’s the tale of the header.