A Trek Back in Time
Visiting Ethiopia’s secluded Saddique Amba monastery.
Long ago in ancient Ethiopia, an Orthodox monk named Welde Saddique traveled through the Simien Mountains in search of a remote place tohide valuable treasures. Among the many EthiopianChristians fleeing Muslim invaders in the 16th century, Welde and other monks and priests like him sought refuge in the northern Highlands, settling in increasingly concealed locations.
Finding that the Simiens would provide a perfect shelter for the gold crosses and parchment manuscripts he hoped to protect, Welde climbed a jagged peak to discover a tiny field, upon which he founded the monastery known today as Saddique Amba. The year was 1640, and for the next few centuries, only a few Ethiopian Orthodox Christians would visit this secluded holy space.
Back to the present day, I am sitting in a smoke-filled wooden hut with a bright-green tin roof. The same ancient monastery sits 30 meters away. The man alongside me — named Abba Misganaw — is the present custodian, and he looks at me with curious eyes, glazed with both cataracts and a hint of suspicion.
“You are only the third foreigner ever to find his way here,” he says in Amharic, a Semitic language of the Highlands. My four Ethiopian travel companions translate his words, as excited as I am to have reached Saddique Amba.
Our journey was sparked only the previous afternoon, as I sat gazing down an escarpment from high up in the Simiens. Watching eagles and Rüppells vultures soar along the basalt cliffs, I could clearly make out the lively green roof of a house, reflected in the setting sun some 500 meters below. Noting my interest, my hardy Simien friends described to me a path that leads to a monastery. They were quick to mention the vertical drop along the route, and that the trek is not for those with a fear of heights.
They looked at me in disbelief when I declared that I wanted to attempt it, glancing at my physique before informing me that it might be possible. But after I threw down the gauntlet to them, these proud mountain people decided not to let the challenge pass them by — or at least not to let a forenji (foreigner) show them how to climb.
The trek down the escarpment and along the ridge had indeed been a tough one. If the Simiens are known as the “Chess pieces of God,” then surely Saddique Amba is the King that has to be protected. The thin, high-altitude air left us breathless as we walked around a mountain ledge with a vertical drop on one side and then climbed up to Saddique Amba — a terrifying feat, as we had no ropes.
Now thinking about the journey back, I begin to regret my impulsive nature. And yet every year at the end of November, dozens of Ethiopian Christian worshippers venture along that same ledge for the St. Mary festival. Their religious beliefs, it seems, far outweigh their fear of falling.
Through the haze of the smoke, I’m pulled back from my daydreaming as Abba Misganaw offers us roasted barley. It is all that he has to offer, and we accept gratefully, sitting on wooden seats covered by rigid goatskins. At first I do not recognize the indignity that Abba Misganaw must feel at having his sanctuary discovered. Yet hospitality precedes all in this part of the world, and we are encouraged to stay. Just as I begin to think that the monk must lead a solitary existence up here in the mountains, a second enters, adjusts a goatskin and sits down. They mumble words to each other in Amharic before turning to my friends.
“The last foreigner to visit our monastery was eight years ago, and he spoke our language,” says Abba Misganaw. My friends translate his words into English, and I wonder whether he has ever heard anyone speak anything other than Amharic. His eyes grow penetrating as he realizes that that we cannot communicate directly.
I know instantly who this previous visitor had been. Chadden Hunter, now a BBC wildlife producer, tracked the gelada monkeys here in the mid-90s. For many months, he filmed the mountain apes with the long fur and fearsome fangs.
We ask Abba Misganaw about the first foreigner to have visited the monastery. He shakes his head, signaling that the first visit was years before his tenure. It is not important. I am happy to be the third and find that bronze is quite acceptable. And so I continue with my questions, keen to know about the history and the wildlife that surrounds this tiny plateau.
I ask how many tabots are held inside the Maquedah — the Holy of Holies, or the inner sanctum of all Orthodox churches. This is the square room that normally holds several stones or wooden blocks, onto which the Ten Commandments are inscribed.
“Two,” he replies. One for the Virgin Mary and the other for the Holy Savior.
“Wood or stone?” I ask.
The long pause that follows tells me I am not going to be informed of all Saddique Amba’s secrets — and maybe for good reason. For in 1987, communist soldiers broke in to Saddique Amba and stole all of its gold, destroying one corner of the monastery in the process. The wall remains in ruin after nearly three decades, its white plaster now flaking off the inner Maquedah and exposing it to damp during the rainy season. We ask if the artifacts had ever been traced, but after another long pause Abba Misganaw mumbles something about Sudan. Apparently he does not know.
“What about mountain leopard?” I ask, changing the subject.
“We hear them growling most nights,” he replies. “But it depends on the gelada. If there are no gelada then the hyenas and leopard are not around either because they have nothing to hunt.” His reply is nonchalant, and I recognize that my question was irrelevant to the holy man. Abba Misganaw has no fear of wild animals; they are just part of the secluded life he has come to know.
As we leave the doorway for the hard return journey, Abba Misganaw points to his eyes and asks if I can do anything for his failing sight. The iris of his left eye, in particular, is opaque white with a cataract. Maybe it could be saved with a visit to the eye hospital at Gondar and a simple operation, I say. However, at mention of the distance — 150 kilometers — he withdraws.
I insist that it is merely a day’s walk out of the mountains and a bus ride from the main road to the city, but the aging monk steps back into the doorway. The pained expression on his face tells me that either the journey is beyond his comprehension, or he has a duty to remain close to the monastery.
As we say our goodbyes, it dawns on me that Abba Misganaw’s fear of leaving the mountain, where he has spent his whole life, will ensure that he never sees clearly again. His faith is far stronger than his belief in modern medicine; his duty to protect the monastery, more important than his failing sight.