Holiness in the Eritrean Highlands

text by David Orr
photos by Seamus Murphy

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The old man pointed toward the top of the mountain and squinted into the sunlight. “Debra Bizen,” he said with a gap-toothed smile. Then he moved off through the village, leading his donkey behind him.

An unremarkable collection of buildings straddling the roadside, the village of Nefasit is an hour’s drive from the Eritrean capital, Asmara. It comes as a welcome halt on the winding and precipitous descent through the highlands toward the coastal plain.

The simplicity of daily life in this valley is far removed from the sophistication of the capital, where society takes its ease with cappuccino and pastries in European-style cafes. Asmara’s architecture and ubiquitous Fiat cars provide constant reminders that Eritrea was, from 1890 until 1941, an Italian colony.

But in Nefasit the rudimentary garb and weathered faces of the local farmers suggest more mundane concerns. There is a cafe of sorts and a restaurant where on a good day it might be possible to find some food. But they are not places in which to loiter.

For us, the path to Debra Bizen began on a grassy slope above the village. After walking for a few minutes, we came upon an inscribed stone that advised women to proceed no further. A few twists and turns later, Nefasit and the winding road had disappeared from view.

The journey to this most famous and oldest of Eritrea’s Christian monasteries had actually begun a few weeks previously in Asmara. The privacy of the monks is resolutely guarded and it had been necessary to submit repeated petitions to the church hierarchy for permission to visit the monastery. Finally, with gray beard and stern gaze, Abuna Philipos, the Titular Bishop of Asmara, gave the visit his blessing.

For three decades Eritrea was embroiled in a civil war with Ethiopia, which had annexed the territory in 1962. The war reached even to the mountains, where the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Ethiopian army pounded each other with mortars and artillery. Evidence of the conflict – empty cartridge shells and rusting cans – litter the higher reaches of the path to Debra Bizen.

It was not until May 1991 that the EPLF finally took Asmara and defeated the Ethiopian forces. Independence was formally declared after a peaceful plebiscite in May 1993.

It is for their remoteness that the sites of Orthodox monasteries in this part of the world were chosen. Legend holds that the founder of Debra Bizen, Abuna Philipos – namesake of the present Titular Bishop of Asmara and head of the Eritrean Orthodox Church – preferred the roar of lions to the distraction of women’s faces. So, in 1361, he and his followers moved from Nefasit to the high mountains, which were once the haunt of ruthless shefatu (brigands).

After three hours of climbing, the presence of the monastery was announced by a large metal cross planted in a boulder. Around the next corner lay the monastery, a scattering of stone buildings dominated by a square bell tower.

The path led to a sandy open space, at one end of which was a round, shuttered church. Along one side of the open ground ran a high stone wall with an arched doorway by which stood a group of monks staring silently at the approaching faranji (foreigners). Their welcome was not the impetuous gabble of men desperate for news from the outside world.

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Tags: Ethiopia Village life Monastery Eritrea Seminarians