Debre Damo: The Pale Knight Rises

In the 2012 film The Dark Knight Rises Bruce Wayne is told by a gnarled and pretentious old priest that to climb the wall of the monastery-cum-prison he must not wear the safety rope. He must climb “as the child did….without the rope…the fear will find you again.” Indeed just how else could Bruce “go faster than possible, fight longer than possible….without the most powerful impulse of the spirit…the feel of death” and thereby save Gotham City?

Thankfully I had quite enough fear to merit the use of the safety rope (strips of old leather knotted together) when contemplating the climb up the twenty metre sheer cliff face to the 6th century Ethiopian monastery at Debre Damo. Only accessible by men using a well-worn plaited leather rope, I swallowed my mild fear of heights and started climbing before the more rational side of my brain decided to chip in. Taking each of the natural footholds a step at a time, teeth gritted, knuckles white, I surprised myself when I reached the top and scrambled through a small wooden door on the cliff ledge. Expecting to see a series of well-used but dependable pulleys and harnesses, I was instead disconcerted to see a wizened monk in a skull cap leaning over me holding the safety rope, whose polite smile loosely masked a resigned and habituated pity for yet another faranji who had decided to visit the monastery. He sympathetically ushered me away to allow space for a local who whipped up the rope in the time it took me to catch my breath.

The flat-topped peak accommodates over one hundred monks and students in traditional stone buildings set out over an area about the size of a cricket pitch, as well as a small herd of male-only, and presumably also celibate, cattle (it takes thirty men to haul each one up). The focal point is the modest 6th century stone monastery, still in pristine condition, having been continuously used and renovated since it was first built. I spent about an hour with my guide serenely walking through the ancient walkways and drystone walls, politely nodding at the monks we passed.  I looked over hundreds of miles of hills, valleys and villages visible through a cloudy haze. I could understand why this was chosen as a place of worship. Over the breeze I could hear brief wisps of car engines and birdsong, but most dominant was the wailing and ululating from a funeral procession we had passed on the road up the mountain. At the end of the hour my guide stopped abruptly and said “We need to go back now before the mourners come up. Otherwise we are here all day.”

 

And so I had to focus on the inevitable obstacle that I had been trying to obscure behind a veneer of affability and enthusiasm for Ethiopian history. However, this time my performance on the rope was assessed by an audience of about two hundred wailing mourners in white robes assembled at the bottom of the cliff. My guide suggested I give the monk with the safety rope a 50 Birr tip – I slapped him 100 into his hand as he showed me to the ledge. The most daunting part was sliding off the cliff’s lip and fumbling for the first foothold; after this the one-step-at-a-time mantra that I had developed during the ascent soon took rhythm. Unfortunately this rhythm was broken somewhat when a mourner tried to climb up over me about a third of the way down. I had to shimmy off the rope and cling like a limpet to the cliff face until he, and then another, opportunistically climbed their way past me (I’m the guy nearer the bottom on the facing picture). I managed the rest without incident, leaping off the rope triumphantly about a metre from the ground, only narrowly avoiding the coffin that lay at the end of the rope containing the next person in the queue.

Gotham City could wait; that was quite enough heroics for an afternoon.

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