Built in the sixth century AD, with curved wood panels, painted ceilings and walls dedicated to the legend of Saint Aregawi, the history of the secretive monastery of Debre Damo is simply reverential.

When I was 18, I spent close to two weeks traipsing through central Germany, visiting over ten monasteries in a jodukus – a journey characterized by setting aside one’s base desires and embarking on a pilgrimage to visit monasteries, and somehow achieve inner peace. Or something close to that.

Our journey began at Volkenroda Abbey in Thuringen, or Kloster Volkenroda, founded in the early 1100s. The next day, we took a train to Hanover, and began our walk south, back to Volkenroda, visiting Cistercian monasteries on the way. My most poignant memory was that these monasteries were havens of solitude and silence. I envied the monks living there, who always looked suspiciously cool, calm and collected. Some of the grounds contained labyrinths and mazes designed to help you get lost in yourself. I just managed to get lost.

Ever since my time in Germany, I’ve always wanted to experience something similar here in Africa. So you can imagine my joy at discovering the Debre Damo Monastery in north-eastern Ethiopia.

This holy space is an architectural marvel, it’s name purportedly derived from a flat-topped “amba” mountain that it sits on at an elevation of a little over 2000 meters above sea level.

The monastery is literally carved into the mountain, and is accessible by a 15 meter rope up a sheer rock face. It’s known for it’s extensive collection of manuscripts, as it became an educational center for Ethiopian Orthodox priests. But better yet, are its inhabitants – 150 monks and 200 deacons -  live in small houses carved into the rock face, with the terrace above as serving as their roofs.

Aba Korkor- a monk who has spent his entire life as a Debre Damo monk. 

Apparently, the monastery was erected in the 6th Century, by Abuna Aregawi, a 6th Century Syrian monk whose exciting life of danger and close scrapes with authorities and persecuted figures in a desperate attempt to found monasteries and churches, is mostly legend. Including that mini-excerpt as well.

The main church was erected in the 8th or 9th centuries, and is an amazing example of Axumite architecture.

Some monks, as young as five or six, are inducted into the monastery for a life of service.

Sadly, after further research, my dream of scaling its 15-meter walled entrance and enjoying its peaceful interiors will have to be forgone, as the monastery is accessible only to men and male animals.

(Found in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, the Debre Damo monastery 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.)

About The Author


Kangai Mwiti is a stylist and beauty artist, working in the creative world who believes in giving people experiences of natural beauty and allowing others the freedom to express who they truly are, irregardless of background or creed. She also a killer project manager with a leading multinational in the corporate sphere, and her mission there is to instill within African organisations a passion for excellence.

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