A Trek Back in Time

Visiting Ethiopia’s secluded Saddique Amba monastery.

Perched along the mountain’s ledge, a young Ethiopian Orthodox monk overlooks the vast Simien Mountains — known as the “Chess pieces of God.”(Photo: Nick Crane)
Perched along the mountain’s ledge, a young Ethiopian Orthodox monk overlooks the vast Simien Mountains — known as the “Chess pieces of God.”(Photo: Nick Crane)

Long ago in ancient Ethiopia, an Orthodox monk named Welde Saddique traveled through the Simien Mountains in search of a remote place to hide valuable treasures. Among the many Ethiopian Christians 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.

Source: Selamta Magazine

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