National Geographic : 1965 Apr
EKTACHROME(ABOVE) AND KODACHROMESL N.G .S . Citadel of serenity Christianity has helped bind Ethiopia together since the fourth century A.D . It also led to her "discovery" a thousand years later by Portuguese explorers following up reports of a Christian kingdom ruled by a legendary Prester John. Monasticism plays a prominent part in Ethiopian Orthodox Church life. Founded in the early Middle Ages, Debra Damo monastery perches on a mesalike amba overlooking the Tigrean plateau (left), accessible only by a stout leather cable up the steep cliff (right). No females, human or animal, may ascend. Here Ethiop kings once exiled ambitious princes lest they topple thrones. Here monks and priests hid church treasures from Ahmed Gran's 16th-century Moslem hordes. Photographer Blair found the courage to climb the rope. "I discovered a community of 200 worshiping in Ethiopia's oldest church, catching rainwater in deep rock cisterns [above], and raising crops and oxen like any other villagers," he reported. "Memhir-chief priest-Gebregiorgis Desta wel comed me in his saffron robe [upper right]. This won derful old man with eyes of the true mystic told me that few foreigners climbed to Debra Damo."