ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Holiness in the Eritrean Highlands

A visit to Debra Bizen, Eritrea’s oldest and most famous Christian monastery.

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.

In a walled courtyard water was fetched from a well for the washing of our feet. A monk then led the way into a large, barn-like building where a midday meal of injera and wat was served. A large, spongy pancake, injera is the staple food of Ethiopia and Eritrea. It serves both as a plate and as a means of eating the wat, a spicy stew that accompanies it. Though usually made from teff, a locally cultivated cereal grain, the principal ingredient of the injera in Debra Bizen is barley: this lends it a rather gray appearance.

The monks who are strong enough to work in the monastery fields – a two-hour walk away – cultivate a range of cereals as well as vegetables and fruit. A robed figure can sometimes be seen making his barefoot way toward the storehouse or the church. But for most it is a life of undisturbed prayer and contemplation.

Some 120 monks live at Debra Bizen, observing the ancient rites of their church. According to their calendar, the year is 1987. The monks, however, seem to occupy a far more remote time than that. Their life is simple and has changed little in more than six centuries. While many of the buildings have corrugated iron roofs and electricity, cooking is done on open fires; there is no heating or hot water and only candlelight is used for prayers. Some monks live as hermits in remote caves.

From time to time outside events have impinged on the life of the monastery. In the late 1970s, with the monks’ blessing, EPLF radio operators stationed themselves there for a year. Then in 1983 the Ethiopian forces, believing an EPLF unit present, fired mortar rounds at Debra Bizen. A monk was killed. The monastery was occupied by the Ethiopians in 1984 and used as an army base until 1991.

“Those were difficult times for us,” explains the Abbot, Abba Gebre Yohannes Fesaha, seated by a brazier of glowing coals in the visitors’ quarters. “The Ethiopian soldiers behaved badly, not respecting the monastery and its rules. They killed and ate 40 of our oxen. A monk who was guarding cattle was forced to carry ammunition, something that is contrary to our way of life.”

Ironically, the majority of Eritreans and Ethiopians share the same faith. The Ethiopian Kingdom accepted Christianity in the fourth century, but popular tradition traces Ethiopia’s contact with the Holy Land back to the time of King Solomon.

As Islam reached deeper and deeper into the kingdom, many Christians retreated to the security of the highlands, while the kingdom’s borders were extended in the south. These Christians, who were subordinate to Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox patriarch, focused their worship not only on the Eucharist but also on the Ark of the Covenant, which is believed to be enshrined in a small chapel within the cathedral complex in the ancient capital of Aksum.

The monks of Debra Bizen are assisted by 30 seminarians, boys who have been sent by their families for a religious education. Most are 10 or 11 years of age when they arrive from Nefasit or other villages in the valley below. If, after five years, they complete their education and so wish – or rather, as the monks say, “If they are chosen by God” – they may go on to become priests.

“I have only been here one month but I like it,” says 15-year-old Tesefamickael Hidrekel. “I am happy to get an education here. Maybe I will start to miss my family, but I know I can see them when I am sent to the village to get provisions.”

For the moment Tesefamickael is the special servant of Abba Hailu, at 98 years of age the oldest member of the community. Until five years ago, Abba Hailu could walk around the monastery and even visit the fields. But he no longer leaves the cell where he spends his days in prayer.

“I used to be a farmer with a wife and seven children,” says Abba Hailu, who likes to take the morning air on his doorstep. “I was in my 50’s when my wife died. I wanted to save my soul. God said that everyone who joins the monastery will go to heaven. When I heard this I came to Debra Bizen.”

Fasting and self-denial are important parts of monastic life. There are 239 fast days in the Eritrean Orthodox calendar. During the 56 days of Lent, the monks eat only dry injera once a day. Sometimes they go for days without food, praying for long hours and sleeping in the open air.

During Lent the seminarians also fast, though they may eat twice a day and may take barley wat with their injera. Their time is spent studying the Bible and performing chores. Wood and water must be fetched, injera baked and, occasionally, provisions fetched from Nefasit.

Long after dark the plaintive voices of the novices can be heard intoning verses from the Bible. Their prayerful chant drifts eerily on the night air, carrying far beyond the confines of the classroom where they eventually fall asleep on the stone floor.

Chanting also plays an important role in the weekend’s main prayer service. After dark, monks and seminarians start arriving at the church. All night they stand, the elderly leaning on wooden crooks. By the flickering candlelight, they sing and read from ancient prayer books. Rich murals and painted wooden icons depicting familiar Bible stories can be made out in the shadows.

High up in the rocky eyrie that is Debra Bizen, the outside world seems remote, even irrelevant. As the midday mist rolls up the mountainside, enveloping the monastery in its gentle folds and damping out all sound, it is possible to believe this community is lost not just in place but also in time. The monks and their students, wrapped in white robes, pass silently by, their gazes level and serene. Soon there is no one about. The paths and the open ground are deserted. It is as if the calm of ages has descended for all eternity.

David Orr is a London-based freelance journalist.

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