Another not to be missed landmark in town is the Debre Birham church, the only historic church in Gondar to have been spared the sacking of the Madhist army, a Muslim revolutionary band that sacked much of Sudan, and part of Ethiopia, in the late 19th Century. History, or legend, has it that the church was saved by a swarm of bees, which drove off the vandals. (You see how difficult it is to take Ethiopian history, as promoted by Ethiopians, seriously? Bees seem to come back many times at critical moments in the past).
For whichever reason, the church still stands, and that is a good thing. Other than the round churches we saw around Lake Tana, this is a solid stone building, rectangular, with verandah, apparently built to hold the Ark of the Covenant – another history, or legend, that is difficult to assess on its merits. (The story is that Menelik, the offspring of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba – or more correctly, Queen Makeda, who ruled Sabea, a kingdom encompassing Ethiopia and Yemen, and who herself was again the last descendent of Ethiopic, the great-grandson of Noah (which makes her a descendant of Noah, right? But that is never mentioned) -, returned to Jerusalem as a young man, and took back the Ark of the Covenant, the most important of all Jewish artefacts; nobody objected, thanks to a series of dreams.)
Similar to the Lake Tana churches, the inside of Debre Birham is beautifully decorated, murals from top to bottom, and a ceiling depicting no less than 80 cherubic faces. The carpets in the church have established a life of their own: one is obliged to take off one’s shoes before entering, allowing the fleas in the carpet a true feast on your feet and ankles.
Equally impressive, and far more interesting, is the bird life outside the church, in once again an enclave of peacefulness. At the back of the church birds of prey congregate, and several types of vultures, whilst on the side the most delightful little, colourful birds hop and fly around, attracted by the shaded trees and small water bowls. As I said, I am no ornithologist, but we did appreciate the birds (more so than the fleas).