ONE @ 50: Holiness in the Eritrean Highlands

In honor of ONE magazine’s 50th-anniversary year, the CNEWA blog series, ONE @ 50: From the Vault, aims to revive and explore the wealth of articles published in ONE magazine throughout its history. Learn about Eritrea’s oldest and most famous Christian monastery, Debra Bizen, in this July-August 1995 article.

Read an excerpt from “Holiness in the Eritrean Highlands” below, then read the full story.

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.

Read more.

David Orr is a London-based freelance journalist.

Recent Posts

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

Nous constatons que votre préférence linguistique est le français.
Voudriez-vous être redirigé sur notre site de langue française?

Oui! Je veux y accéder.

Hemos notado que su idioma preferido es español. ¿Le gustaría ver la página de Asociación Católica para el Bienestar del Cercano Oriente en español?

Vee página en español