Heading north-west out of Addis Ababa on the good asphalt Dejazmach Belay Zeleke Street (also called the Gojjam Road), the road winds its way up the side of Mount Entoto, which offers a superb view of the sprawling capital below. A lookout point at the top marks the spot where the road begins its descent to the plateau, which extends all the way to the Blue Nile Gorge. To the left, one can glimpse the peak of Mount Sululta; to the right, the Gorfu Mountains.
Eighty-two kilometres (51 miles) from the city is the beginning of the Blue Nile Gorge, where a sheer cliff drops more than 1,000 metres (3,000 feet) into a spectacular gorge formed by the Zega Wodel River, one of the Blue Nile tributaries. At this point, a marker indicates the turn right to the Debre Libanos monastery, which is approximately five kilometres (three miles) from the turnoff along an asphalt road.
The monastery, perched beneath a cliff on the edge of a gorge, overlooks a tributary of the Blue Nile. The original monastic buildings of Debre Libanos have long since disappeared, having been destroyed, it is said, during the wars of Ahmed Gragn. They were replaced by a succession of structures, the latest of which is a spectacular modern church erected after World War II on Emperor Haile Selassie's orders. Note the mosaic figures on the facade. The church also has beautiful stained glass windows and contains some interesting mural paintings by the well-known Ethiopian artist Afewerk Tekle. To the left of the church is the nuns' residence, built in the 1920s, and to the right behind the church is a cave containing holy water. Nearby are the huge monks' kitchens, dating from the early 20th century. Although women are not allowed to enter the monastery, they can visit other areas of the compound.
The monastic establishment was founded in the thirteenth century by Tekle Haymanot, one of the Ethiopian Orthodox church's most renowned saints. Legend claims that Tekle Haymanot played an important role in the transactions that led to the end of the Zagwe dynasty, when the last of its rulers, Na'akuto La'ab, it is said, abdicated in 1270 in favour of Emperor Yekuno Amlak, the first monarch of the Solomonic line. As a reward for Tekle Haymanot's services Debre Libanos was made the senior monastery of Shewa region.
In the early seventeenth century the monks of Debre Libanos, because of the Oromo advance, migrated to Azzezo, north of Lake Tana. They were neverthe- less still regarded as one of the pillars of the Orthodox Christian faith and played an important role in the politics of the then capital Gondar, where they were much involved in a theological controversy on the nature of the Trinity.
The monastery was, however, later reconstituted in Shewa and was particularly important during the reign of Emperor Menelik, who travelled there during his last fatal illness to sample its reputedly curative holy waters. Many noblemen and others also used to go there on pilgrimage, and many important figures were buried within the monastic precincts. Later, in 1937, during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, the Debre Libanos monks incurred the wrath of the Fascist viceroy Graziani, who ordered their execution 'all without distinction'; 297 monks were accordingly shot, after which he proudly reported, 'of Debre Libanos there remains no more trace'. The bones of the martyred monks can be seen at the monastery to this day.
Visit the House of the Cross, which is decorated internally with interesting paintings and said to house a cross that belonged to Tekle Haymanot.
A hundred metres beyond the monastery's turnoff, a five-minute walk to the right, towards the gorge, is a bridge from which there is a fine view of the countryside far below. This bridge is popularly described as sixteenth-century Portuguese but was in fact built in the late nineteenth century by an Ethiopian nobleman, Emperor Menelik's uncle, Ras Darge. It is possible to climb down below the bridge to where some waterfalls start their 600-metre (2,000-foot) plunge to the valley below, or walk along the cliff edge to look back at the falls and the bridge.