Debre Birhan Selassie Church in Gondar, the Lone Survivor

By: Matt

Debre Birhan Selassie Church

On top of a hill at the edge of Gondar lies what is considered the most important church in Ethiopia. Built by Emperor Eyasu II in the 17th century and named in tribute to him the “Mountain of Light”. At the time of its construction, it was not considered to be all that special. Then the city was sacked in 1888 by Mahdist Dervishes of Sudan, and all the other churches were burned down, leaving it the sole survivor. Legend says that when the Mahdist soldiers approached the church, a swarm of bees descended on the compound and kept the troops back. Legend further states that the Archangel Michael himself stood before the great wooden gates with a flaming sword drawn. What remains today is a treasure the people of Ethiopia are proud to share with you.

From the outside, Debre Birhan Selassie Church is not much to look at, the genuine treasures rest inside. Built of stone and contained under a two-tiered thatched roof, the church is surrounded by a stone wall with large arched wooden gates and 12 circular towers. The interior walls depict biblical scenes, Saints, and Icons of the Holy Trinity (three identical men with halos). The Crucifixion resides prominently above the two interior doors leading to the stall from which Emperor Eyasu II and his mother would occupy during ceremonies. At first entry, there are some many sights vying for your attention, but mine went straight to the ceiling covered in the faces of 135 cherubs. Take your time and explore, while it is not a big space, discoveries are waiting all around.

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A priest giving a tour in the church.

A priest giving a tour in the church.

The Crucifixion with the Holy Trinity above.

The Crucifixion with the Holy Trinity above.

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Debre Birhan Selassie Church 14

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A section of the cherub covered ceiling.

A section of the cherub covered ceiling.

Travelasics

The church is open from 8 am – 12:30 pm and then again from 1:30 – 6 pm. Tickets are purchased in cash directly across the street from the main entry gate; 50 Birr for adults and 75 Birr if you wish to use a video camera. The Priests will provide tours, but a small donation to the church is expected. I recommend using a tuk-tuk to get to the church, and if you negotiate it beforehand, they will wait for you and take you back. Men can enter the church directly through the front doors, but women are required to enter via the side door. All visitors must remove their shoes before entry.

The side of the church and the entrance for women.

The side of the church and the entrance for women.

Photo Tips:

No Flash is allowed inside the church. The church is not well lit, so you are going to want to use a higher ISO or a lens with a large aperture, i.e., preferably f/2 or greater.

Travelationship Rating:

3 out of 5 Travelationship High Fives. If you like adventure, history or bucket lister type travel, you will enjoy Debre Birhan Selassie Church.

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Comments 19

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  1. This church looks like a real gem. The paintings are so well preserved. I’ve always love to go to Ethiopia, maybe the time has finally come, you have convinced me.

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  2. Tons of them…The entire Rajasthan is filled with them. Now that I look at them again, you will find amazing vegetable color art in the South Indian temples too – Lepakshi, Virupaksha temple in Hampi etc being some.

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  3. What an amazingly looking church: your photos of the decorations are stunning – I love that ceiling with the cherubs. Also, the yellow of the priest’s vest really caught my eye: this might be just a naive observation from me, but growing up in Italy I still find it unusual and beautiful to see priests in colorful attire!

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      Thank you Laura. I only wish the photos did it justice, quite the site to see. We really can’t recommend Ethiopia enough, a great deal of things to see and do. Stay tuned we have more posts to come regarding our visit there.

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