Ancient Church in a Young Nation

The Orthodox Church in Eritrea serves faith and country

by Chris Hellier

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Even in the relative cool of an early spring morning it is still a grueling two-hour climb to Debra Bizen, an Orthodox monastery in Eritrea’s central highlands. At the start of a stony, serpentine path that rises steeply from the valley floor a sign bluntly warns: “No females beyond this point. Of any species. Turn back now.”

Atop a narrow ridge 2,700 feet above sea level, looking out toward the distant Red Sea, lie the scattered buildings of the monastery, one of Eritrea’s most revered. It was founded in 1361 by Abune (or Bishop) Philipos, who chose the monastery’s remote location to avoid the distractions of village girls. The Bishop declared that he would “rather stare into the face of a lion than into a woman’s eyes.”

Centuries later, another Philipos, Eritrea’s first Orthodox Patriarch and spiritual leader of Eritrea’s independence movement, was ordained a priest at Debra Bizen. It is also where he was laid to rest last September.

Past to present. Eritrea, a former Ethiopian province, achieved independence from its larger neighbor to the south in 1993 after a 31-year war, but both countries continue to share cultural practices, languages and traditions that date to the Horn of Africa’s early Christian past.

Liturgies in both Eritrea and Ethiopia are celebrated in Ge’ez, the language of ancient Aksum, a Christian kingdom that flourished in Ethiopia’s northern highlands from the third century until its conquest by Muslim invaders at the end of the seventh century. The sermons are delivered in Tigrinya, the vernacular of the Eritrean and northern Ethiopian highlands, where different and sometimes competing tribes have been united for centuries by a common Christian heritage.

When Eritrea was a province of Ethiopia, particularly during the Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, monasteries were often used as havens for fighters from the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, which led the independence movement. Ethiopian authorities distrusted the monks, their lands were confiscated and some monks fled to the forests to escape persecution for collaboration.

With its commanding views of the surrounding region, Debra Bizen was used – with the monks’ blessing – by the Front’s radio operators in the late 1970’s to transmit signals to fellow Eritrean fighters. In 1983, the Ethiopian Army fired mortar rounds at Debra Bizen in an effort to root them out. The Ethiopians then occupied the monastery from 1984 to 1991.

Today, Debra Bizen houses some 100 monks in one-room huts made of stone, with life there not unlike that of early Christian ascetics. More austere hermits, nominally attached to the monastery, pass their days on narrow ledges in the cliff face.

There are also a few bare classrooms and three churches in the complex, the newest of which has a sanctuary with a conical roof, built in 1968 during the reign of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.

The sprawling site has clearly suffered with time. Some buildings lie in ruins, others need urgent repair. In its heyday the monastery housed more than 900 monks (some sources claim 3,000), but changing social, political and religious conditions have reduced it to a more modest retreat.

Opinions differ on how Debra Bizen and the country’s 21 other Orthodox monasteries are faring in independent Eritrea.

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