Sunday, 29 July 2001

Debre Libanos

Just before leaving one's homeland to travel abroad, one turns an imaginary hourglass. When you get back you find the last grains dropping, signifying that your time abroad is up; you are back home. The slipping grains of this hourglass never left my mind for even a minute that I was stationed in Africa; as a result of which I traveled like a madman. Since I was on duty, I could not travel far most of the times. But that didn't bother me. I was in Africa: anything beyond eyesight was something new! Agreed it was the same for me in my own vast country, specially when I found myself in some part I'd never been before. But the hourglass was missing.
My birthday gift for myself on my thirtieth year was a trek to Debre Libanos, the oldest monastery in Eritrea. Do not confuse it with a monastery of the same name in Ethiopia which I have not visited, and which has more internet attention than its Eritrean namesake.
The monastery has a breathtaking location on the edge of a vertical cliff. I had seen it from the nearby plains where I was stationed and it looked magnificent in its high perch. To get there I would have to negotiate the vertical cliff and climb up to the monastery. I spoke to a few local and they assured me that there was a way to do that. When I looked up at the formidable feature ahead of me, all I saw was a gigantic wall. I decided to take their word for it and started off on the trek. I walked through some beautiful countryside before I reached the base of the cliff. Sure enough there seemed to be a cutting in the rock face into which the footpath I was on disappeared. I entered the cutting and saw that it was a kind of crude natural stairway. Feeling a bit like Indiana Jones, I started my ascent. Couldn't help humming 'Stairway to heaven' as I did! Just short of reaching the top of the mesa, there was a path going to the left. It was a narrow path cut along the edge of the vertical cliff, just below. I could see how much height I had gained by looking down the sheer drop to my left, an exercise that I did not repeat after the first mild bout of vertigo! It was a surreal experience, as if walking on a rope tied along the vertical face of this feature. I had gained about 400 meters in height and that can give you quite a view! If this wasn't exciting enough, the narrow path I was treading suddenly disappeared under a beautiful waterfall! I paused to take in the beautiful sight and to contemplate if I had strayed onto the wrong track. I realised that it was not the case, as I was supposed to walk between the sheet of falling water and the hillside on the slippery track. The path to God is not an easy one, surely that was the idea that Abba Meta, the founder of Debre Libanos, had when he sited the monastery here.
Soon I was at the monastery. I was met by the monks at the entrance and treated like quite a celebrity. Apparently I was one of the very few people to visit them since the war. I was treated to injera, the traditional pancake like bread made of teff flour and some home-brewed beer. The beer tasted something like a lambic and was very refreshing! I was taken on a tour of the monastery, the highlight of which was the visit to the room where they kept the mummies of the priests. There in one room, it was a distance away from the monastery, I saw at least thirty mummies piled on each other rather unceremoniously. I was told that some of the mummies were at least a 1000 years old!
On my way back, I climbed to the top of the mesa and came to the flat table top- a completely different landscape. I walked to the village of Ham where a vehicle waited to take me to our logistic base in Senafe. Chilled beer awaited me. It was my birthday!