Debre Sina: Pilgrimage to One of the Oldest Eritrean Monasteries

About Eritrea - History & Culture

The land of Eritrea is dotted with several historical and cultural monuments that stand witness to the historical wealth of the nation and its people. Every patch of land has a profound history to tell; every corner of the country embraces histories within its belly.

Eritrea’s population is diverse, reflecting many languages, cultures and religions living together in harmony under the umbrella of unity. This unity makes the people stronger with each passing day. Eritreans are also known for their friendliness and generosity.

Eritrea is endowed with natural and cultural heritages that are appealing and attractive to tourists. Beautiful landscapes in the highlands and lowlands, valleys, mountains, hills, and ridges are awe inspiring to anyone who happens to visit those places. The picturesque landscapes, which are seasonally covered with green carpets of grass, flowers and bushes, are indeed breathtaking and soothing to the sore eyes.

Cultural relics including remains of houses and household utensils in architectural ruins from ancient human civilizations are found in this very land, spread in every corner of the country. There are historical places such as the Steles of Metera and Qohaito; the monasteries of Debre Sina, Ham and Debre Bizen; Mariam Dearit; the Liberation Struggle trenches in Nakfa: rock paintings in Karura; ancient ports of Zula and Adulis… the list goes on.

The Anseba Region is home to some of the most prominent historical sites in the country, one of them being the Monastery of Debra Sina.

Situated on the Eritrean highlands, just around 18 kilometers east of the town of Elabered, on the Asmara-Keren road, the Monastery of Debre Sina is a site of pilgrimage for Eritrean Orthodox Christians in the month of June.

There is an interesting story that revolves around the origins of this monastery. Legend has it that the site where the monastery of Debre Sina is situated was once a sanctuary for St Mary and her young child, Jesus. It is said that St. Mary and her Son, accompanied by Joseph and Salome, first fled to Egypt and stayed at the monastery of Koskuam to avoid being persecuted by King Herod of Judea. The story further states that after staying for a few days, they moved on southwards and arrived at the nearby caves of Debre Senhit (later called Debre Sina) in Eritrea and stayed there for forty days. It is said that God blessed the area and put his holy hand on the big rock there to create a most sacred place - a cave hollowed out with two doors, one facing east and the other west.

Another story also goes that the pilgrimage centers on a church above the village where a vision of Mary was said to have been seen by shepherd girls beneath a large boulder. The church is built adjacent to and over the rock where the vision was seen.

Either way, the Debre Sina pilgrimage is made by thousands of ordinary Eritrean believers camping for one night in the village of Debra Sina, singing, chanting and celebrating the Virgin Mary.

The journey from Elabered to Debre Sina is quite an arduous one. One has to climb upto the monastery through a steep slope on a dry weather road; very challenging for buses to go through. It’s common to see cars breaking down along the way.

What is annoying is the fact that when one car breaks down, all the others get stuck on the narrow road. The only solution is often to wait until the car is repaired. Well, you can guess how exhausting it can be to just wait and wait until the car or bus is fixed.

During the celebration this year, there were more than 300 buses and countless small cars making their way to the monastery.

Many more pilgrims were also going on foot all the 18 kilometers, climbing the hill and carrying their food and drink. Even though the journey was exhausting, they managed to reach their destination safely. Many Eritreans also came from abroad to celebrate the day.

Here, I witnessed the generosity of Eritreans. People, I think they were inhabitants of the area, were offering free water and food to those who were climbing the mountain. They welcomed these complete strangers to their house for shelter. Some of the inhabitants were also offering Siwa (traditional drink) to anyone who passed by their doors.

When we reached the monastery, everybody was so relieved to reach the top of the mountain. Finding a parking lot was another difficult task. After getting off the buses and cars, everyone started packing and arranging their things, to then walk for about a kilometer to the church.

Once again, I observed the kindness of the youth and children of that area. They asked you if you needed any help and offered to carry your belongings. You feel so proud to be part of this harmonious and loving people.
When we reached our final destination, we could see down where the buses were parked.. Everybody was happy and cheered with amazement.

The pilgrims were singing a praising song all the way, the 83 kilometer, from Asmara. The themes of their songs wished for God to bless Eritrea, to bestow peace and love to the people, to return the children of Eritrea from the fortress safely to their homes and to have a good rainy season. Both Muslims and Christians make the pilgrimage to Debre Sina. One can witness how much the people need peace and love in this land.

The landscape inside the monastery is unbelievable. Every rock seemed to be carved out by a great architect. The pilgrims were praying and praising Saint Mary way into the night and the next day. Despite the freezing night air, the pilgrims kept on praying and chanting hymns.

The older, inner part of the church (which, unlike many monasteries in Eritrea, is open to both men and women) is cut from rock and, according to local tradition, is 2100 years old. The troglodyte dwellings of the 60 nuns and priests are also accessible to visitors.

One of the oldest religious sites in Africa, believed to date back to the 6th Century AD, Debre Sina could play a great role in reviving the tourism industry in Eritrea. And for that to happen, we have to work hard towards developing the basic infrastructure and especially the road that leads to the monastery. The Ministry of Tourism has to work relentlessly to guarantee easier and more comfortable access to the place.

Eritrea has a potential for tourism marketing, hence the Ministry of Tourism along with the Ministry of Information and other concerned intuitions need to enhance their efforts in promoting Debre Sina.