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Wonders: Debra Damo Monastery


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Photo: the ancient monastery The ancient monastery of Debra Damo is the oldest standing church in Ethiopia and the center of the Ethiopian church. Debra Damo is built on a high plateau north of Aksum, and can only be reached by scaling a cliff by means of a leather rope. Its inaccessibility gives some clue why the monastery served as a sanctuary for Ethiopia's rulers during times of war.

According to Ethiopian tradition, holymen known as the Nine Saints arrived in Ethiopia in the 5th or 6th century to spread Christianity. One of these men, Za-Mikael Aregawi, is believed to have founded Debra Damo. It was a monk trained at Debra Damo who became the patron of the Solomonid pretender Yekuno Amlak, and helped him to overthrow the last of the Zagwe kings. Especially during the Zagwe dynasty, the aristocratic families of the north saw the great monasteries as an alternate base for power. As the wealth of the monasteries depended on temporary land grants known as gült, the abbots had to possess the sophistication of a courtier. The king often used these grants to enrich the monasteries that would support him, and the Zagwe were quite rightly suspicious of Debra Damo.

By Roderick Grierson

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