Debre Berhan Selassie

sights / Religious

Debre Berhan Selassie information

admission Birr50, video camera Birr75
Opening hours
8am-12.30pm & 1.30-6pm
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Lonely Planet review

If it weren’t for a swarm of bees, the beautiful church of Debre Berhan Selassie would have probably been destroyed like most of Gonder’s other churches by the marauding Sudanese Dervishes in the 1880s. When the Dervishes showed up outside the gates of the church, a giant swarm of bees surged out of the compound and chased the invaders away. This was a lucky intervention: with its stone walls, arched doors, two-tiered thatch roof and well-preserved paintings, Debre Berhan Selassie is one of the most beautiful churches in Ethiopia.

The roof, with its rows and rows of winged cherubs , representing the omnipresence of God, draws most eyes. There’s space for 135 cherubs, though 13 have been erased by water damage. Aside from the cherubs the highlights have to be the devilish Bosch-like depiction of hell and the Prophet Mohammed atop a camel being led by a devil. Although local tradition attributes most paintings to the 17th-century artist Haile Meskel, this is unlikely because the building only dates back to the late 18th century. The original circular church, created in the 1690s by Iyasu I, was destroyed by lightening.

A large stone wall with 12 rounded towers surrounds the compound and these represent the 12 apostles. The larger 13th tower (entrance gate) symbolises Christ and is shaped to resemble the Lion of Judah. If you have a keen eye, you’ll be able to spot the lion’s tail above the doorway in the wall west of the church.

Flash photography inside the church is forbidden. Priests offer tours but a small contribution for the church should be left afterwards.