Roadtrip Day 20: Lake Tana Monasteries

Tuesday 23rd January, 2018

Lake Tana is home to a large number of Orthodox Christian monasteries. The majority are located on small islands in the lake, with a small number open to visitors, although not all of these are open to female visitors.

Lina, her brother John and I chartered a motor boat and guide for the morning to take us to some of these.

Lina organising our cruise on Lake Tana

The sun is rising as we head out to the lake in the early morning. It is so peaceful. Besides us in a noisy motorboat, there are only the local fishermen, fishing with nets from small papyrus canoes, while large pelicans are watching them carefully.

Fishing on Lake Tana

The feel of the islands on the lake is so peaceful. You can see why people go here for several weeks in a retreat; fasting, praying and just being. The 30 odd monasteries on the island and the peninsulas in and around Lake Tana are predominantly from the 14th to 16th century, and are World Heritage listed. Their churches are mainly simple round structures, with thatched roofs and adobe walls.

They look like simple African village structures on the outside, but the insides are covered in brightly coloured paintings that cover every vertical surface in sight. You can spot angels, soldiers on horses, saints with bright robes, stories from the bible, about saints, and some of the legends that are associated with Emperor Menelik and his descendants. Interesting to note is that the older paintings will have biblical figures, saints and angels with dark skin and afros.

Our first stop is the Entos Eyesu monastery. We disembark and walk through the forest, up the stone steps, to the church that is on the top of hill that makes up the island. This is one of the few churches that is actually made of stone.

It is very quiet, we see both male and female monks here, reading, praying and doing chores. Lots of birds are visiting these islands with their the lavish green vegetation, it feels nearly tropical.

Reading Monk, Entos Eyesu
Entos Eyesu

The next stop is one the Zegie peninsula. We sail past the Kibran Gabriel monastery, which is no longer open to the public. It looks like a lovely green island. A lot of islands are male monks only, and they do their best to keep their isolation.

The next two churches on our trip are located along the shores of Lake Tana. It is a lovely walk along the mangroves. Drums are hanging up on ropes that line the path, and we walk through a small village, and through the lake shore forest with wild Ethiopian coffee bushes.

Zegie Peninsula, Lake Tana

We visit Ura Kidane Mehret, a church with amazing paintings depicting the history of Ethiopia as well as biblical scenes. The paintings are all between 100 and 250 years old, and the building itself is from the 16th century. The dim light inside the building has done an excellent job preserving the paintings.

Paintings were traditionally used to tell stories to a mainly illiterate congregation. And this church is said to have the most beautiful of all of the churches in Lake Tana.

Ura Kidane Mehret

There is also an impressive small museum, with the crowns of a number of emperors and their robes.

The next visit is Azuwa Mariam, a lovely round building set in a large field, that is covered with cloths filled with coffee beans that are drying in the sun. The wall surrounding the compound ensures that these beans are not eaten by the omni present livestock.

Azuwa Mariam on the Zegie Peninsula

Before we head for Debre Mariam we turn into the mouth of the Blue Nile. This is one of the two sources of the Nile river, the other being the White Nile, which joins the Blue Nile to create the Nile river. Only a couple of meters into the Blue Nile we spot our first hippopotamus. A whole family, with several adults and calfs, are busy munching their way through the grasses at the bottom and side of the river.

Hippopotami at the mouth of the Blue Nile

Our final church is Debre Mariam, a large church set at the end of a path full of souvenir stalls and drinks and snacks vendors. This is relatively close to Bahir Dar, which makes it a popular site for visitors. The church is painted outside in an interesting colour of green and has the usual range of bright coloured paintings inside.

There is a small booth where we admire some of the ancient manuscripts written in Ge’ez on goatskin, and other ancient artefacts from the church.

Debre Mariam

“Churched out” we return to Bahir Dar for lunch only to find that Mike and Frank have decided, over a couple of Bedeles, to check us out of the Grand as planned, but stay for another night in Bahid Dar.

We say goodbye to John, who is heading back to Gondor by bus, and end up checking into the Kitsel hotel. Although it is not on the Lake Tana shore, it is clean and excellent value for money. A suite here is only 950 Birr (US$34) a night. We have a relaxing afternoon and an early dinner at the Jacaranda, enjoying the fire pit.

We head off to the Ethiopian Culture Centre for the evening. The culture centre is great if you haven’t seen anything else yet, but after our experiences in Gondar this leaves us flat. We leave early for another nightcap at the Jacaranda, which is much more enjoyable.

Travel Details and Tips:

Accomodation: Kitsel Hotel, Bahir Dar

Tip: Charting a motorboat is fairly easy, especially in Bahir Dar. There are set fees based on the type of boat and destination(s). Naturally, you will be expected to provide a small tip to the boat driver and guide. We had a large metal boat, with a sun roof, and it felt very safe and comfortable. Do bring your own water and snacks, as well as a light jacket as the lake can be cool in the mornings.

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