Ethiopia? I’ll get the hang of it: How dangling from a cliff is the only way to reach one of the world’s oldest churches

  • 6th century Debre Damo monastery perches on a plateau in north Ethiopia
  • The Foreign Office recommends against travel to this area due to banditry
  • But most of Ethiopia is safer for tourists than travelling to Brazil or Mexico

The rope being tied around my waist by a monk comprised lengths of scraggly old leather attached to each other by granny knots. I have a fear of heights, and as I looked up, the cliff seemed to topple towards me by degrees.

But this was the only way to visit the 6th century monastery of Debre Damo, which perches on a plateau in northern Ethiopia, a true wilderness.

The monk whistled and I was plucked off terra firma like a sprat on a hook, yanked 50ft feet up the rock face by muscle power alone. Blessedly it was over within a minute, my terror to be replaced instantly with tranquility.

A priest climbs a rope to the 6th century monastery, Debre Damo,  west of Adigrat in the Tigray Region

A priest climbs a rope to the 6th century monastery, Debre Damo,  west of Adigrat in the Tigray Region

Norther Ethiopia: Most of Ethiopia can be visited in safety - in the centre and north of the country – an area bigger than France – the famously risk-averse Foreign Office states that crime levels are low

Northen Ethiopia: Most of Ethiopia can be visited in safety – in the centre and north of the country – an area bigger than France – the famously risk-averse Foreign Office states that crime levels are low

I could see for 20 miles across a tawny landscape of desert and mountain. A bell rang faintly, and the vivid purple blossom on the trees had a pleasant fragrance. The church itself was an antediluvian hunch of masonry and desiccated beams protruding from the walls.

Its interior, musty and redolent with age, was lined with hand-carved panels and millennia-old murals. The monks inside were almost as ancient, gnarled holy men clad in fez and robes, and whose smiles revealed toothless mouths. They read from handwritten codexes, the names of saints picked out in scarlet.

Even getting to this place had been unnerving. The Foreign Office recommends against travel to within six miles of the Eritrean border due to banditry – but that is where you will find Debre Damo, one of the oldest churches on Earth. And the monastery is a crucial location in my historical thriller, Foretold By Thunder. I had to see it.

Local myth has it that the angels carved the beautiful rock hewn churches at Lalibela

Local myth has it that the angels carved the beautiful rock hewn churches at Lalibela

I was cheered in my task by the thought that I have visited my fair share of bad neighbourhoods to research fiction. In the jungles of Sierra Leone two years ago, I was charged by a hippopotamus and had to climb a tree to escape; in the Republic of Congo I was on plane when the cabin began to lose pressure and passengers were advised to ‘extinguish cigarettes’. How bad could this be?

But as our Land Cruiser neared Debre Damo, we spotted pieces of field artillery and soldiers in mismatched uniforms jogging by the track. Next we reached a machine-gun post, string dangled across the track like the winning tape of a marathon. Then it was into what felt suspiciously like no-man’s-land. Yet to the victor, the spoils. Visiting Debre Damo is to travel back in time.

While some regions are to be avoided, most of Ethiopia can be visited in safety. In the centre and north of the country – an area bigger than France – the famously risk-averse Foreign Office states that crime levels are low. Travelling to Brazil or Mexico – places British tourists jet off to every day – would entail more security considerations.

Ethiopians are in love with their own unique and beguiling culture. The men wear flowing robes and the women have crosses tattooed on their foreheads

Ethiopians are in love with their own unique and beguiling culture. The men wear flowing robes and the women have crosses tattooed on their foreheads

At Lalibela you can visit 12th Century churches hacked out of the rock – like Petra, only less well-known

At Lalibela you can visit 12th Century churches hacked out of the rock – like Petra, only less well-known

The country itself confounds expectations too. Many would associate the word Ethiopia with famine, but this is no fly-blown hellhole. It is a country with a history every bit as rich as India, and as in the subcontinent, most Ethiopians have little interest in Bradley Cooper or One Direction. Instead, they are in love with their own unique and beguiling culture. The men wear flowing robes and the women have crosses tattooed on their foreheads.

In the north, the culture often feels more Arabian than sub-Saharan African; the national language, Amharic, is Semitic in origin. The cuisine is delicious and distinct, an array of spicy stews served up on a pancake and washed down with tej honey wine.

The coffee is extraordinary, too. Ethiopia was first to cultivate the bean – add the Italian influence and you are assured of a blistering good cup in all but the most remote of villages. Oh, and the dancing. Like it or not you will be compelled to join in, whether in a restaurant or as impromptu guest of honour at a wedding. Heads jut backwards and forwards like some kind of lizard, and bodies judder and bounce on the spot to high-pitched exclamations of delight.

The Camelot of Africa: At Gondar is a compound of royal castles once home to Abyssinian emperors

The Camelot of Africa: At Gondar is a compound of royal castles once home to Abyssinian emperors

Ethiopia was the world’s second Christian country, and at Lalibela you can visit 12th Century churches hacked out of the rock – like Petra, only less well-known. Local myth has it that the angels carved these; I suspect human devotion and hard work must really take the credit.

But unlike Petra, Lalibela remains a site of devotion to this day. Monks pad through a labyrinth of passageways cut into the rock and obeisance is performed with a fervour rarely seen in Europe.

At Gondar you can visit a compound of royal castles once home to Abyssinian emperors. Its nickname is the Camelot of Africa, and there is something indefinably African about the fortresses’ forms in the yellow light – the profusion of domes, the rounded battlements.

Further north lies the seat of the old Axumite empire. In ancient times this was one of four great world powers, alongside Rome, Persia and China. It was from Axum that the Queen of Sheba journeyed to visit King Solomon in Jerusalem, and the Ethiopian Church claims the Ark of the Covenant still resides there. The catch is that the only person allowed to see it is the guardian – a single decrepit monk. The rest of Ethiopia’s Christians must take it on blind faith, and they do.

Yet Axum, too, has been forgotten by history, and all that remains of a state that once stretched to Yemen are the stele of Axumite kings – a forest of stone embellished with strange circles and markings. The tallest has cracked into several pieces, but it once stood taller than the highest obelisk in Egypt.

The stunning Simien Mountains are on the northern circuit of tourist attractions

The stunning Simien Mountains are on the northern circuit of tourist attractions

The Simien Mountains are also on the northern circuit of tourist attractions, and if Gondar is Africa’s Camelot, here we find the roof of the continent. The tallest is Ras Dashen, and while acclimatisation is needed to scale that peak, walkers of reasonable fitness can enjoy highlands of staggering beauty right away. The only company you’ll find are eagles, vultures and massed baboons.

Ethiopian roads are ludicrously bad and it would be insane to try to circuit the north by vehicle – it would also take months. But Air Ethiopia is cheap, has a good safety record, and an airport at each destination. The country equally suits the independent traveller or those who prefer the reassurance of a pre-arranged tour. There are a surprising number of companies running religious or historical programmes, and middle-aged or elderly tourists are a common sight.

With my pen I have tried to depict an Old World culture every bit as idiosyncratic as the more famous civilisations of the East, yet all but forgotten by mainstream tourism. Images burned into the Western subconscious during the 1980s hold it back, but it deserves to be visited by tourists as much as by writers.

One day the world will wake up to Ethiopia, with its peaceable inhabitants and magnificent history. Get there first. Oh, and good luck getting up that cliff…