The Debre Damo monastery, which dates back to early Aksumite times, is said to possess the Ethiopia's oldest existing church. Legend has it that Abba Aragawi, one of the 'Nine Saints', while wandering at the foot of the cliff, judged that the plateau above him was a suitable place to live a solitary life. God, hearing his wish, commanded a snake living on the mountain-top to stretch down and lift up the holy man, who made Debre Damo his abode.
The visitor, lacking the kind snake that helped the monastery's founder to ascend the mountain, has to go up using a rope lowered by the friendly monks. The summit, when eventually conquered 24 metres (78 feet) later, offers panoramic views and complete seclusion and peace for the 600 or so monks and deacons who live there.
The beams and ceiling of the ancient Debre Damo church - around which the monastery is built - are beautifully decorated with carved wooden panels depicting lion, elephant, rhinoceros, snakes, gazelle, antelope, giraffe, and camels. A large number of paintings are preserved there, including several depicting Abba Aragawi's legendary foundation of Debre Damo.
The treasures secreted within - kept intact through the monastery's 1,400 tumultuous years of history because of that arduous, dangerous ascent - include an extensive collection of illuminated manuscripts, among them the oldest surviving text fragments anywhere in Ethiopia. The church now houses about fifty manuscripts, although the monks claim they once possessed no less than a thousand.
After fourteen centuries, the monastery of Dabre Damo has experience little change. Rare visitors are usually led to the home of the high priest paying respect and fee, then they would be escorted to appreciate the interior of the monastery and surrounding area, which boasts a spectacular panorama view of the Tigray Highland. Today, there are about 600 monks and priest live in the 150 stone houses on the mountain top. Their life is almost entirely self-sufficient, with cisterns collecting rain water, home grown crops and livestock.