Lake Tana is a vast stretch of water, 84km long and 66km wide, at a breathless altitude of over 1800 metres, making it one of the highest bodies of water in Africa. While Lake Tana is famed as the source of the Blue Nile, one of the main reasons for visiting this area is to explore the monasteries which can be found on the shores of the lake and, more exciting, on small islands in the middle of it requiring a boat ride across the water to visit. It’s a journey well worth making.
Arranging a visit to one or more monasteries is easy from Bahir Dar, boat owners and touts will actively seek you out, and most hotels offer trips. When you’re discussing a visit, and almost certainly haggling over the price, its important to remember that several monasteries don’t admit women. There was a time when women weren’t allowed onto some of the islands, but a recent (magnanimous?) concession to tourism means women can now set foot on the island so long as they stay close to the water’s edge.
Although these Ethiopian Orthodox monasteries are easy to visit today, for centuries they were inaccessible outposts which housed communities of monks and nuns in splendid isolation. They also house exquisite and priceless religious icons, leather-bound texts, crosses and paintings dating back over 600 years. A visit to the monasteries provides a fascinating insight into the world of the monks and nuns, and into the visible differences between Ethiopian Orthodox and Western European Catholicism and Protestantism.
We decided to visit two islands – one male only, the other unisex. We set off early in the morning for the first island, home to the 17th Century Kebran Gabriel Monastery. The island is heavily vegetated, and only as you draw closer does the top of the monastery loom out of the vegetation. The walk up to the monastery is steep and muddy (we visited just after the rainy season), and the first sight of the monastery was, I have to admit, a little underwhelming.
The traditional thatched roof had been replaced with a metal roof and the rest of the building looked pretty ordinary from outside. If the exterior was disappointing however, the interior was extraordinary – one of the most atmospheric places imaginable, especially as I was the only person visiting. It was an incredible experience: the entire interior seemed to be covered with bright paintings depicting biblical scenes. Although many of the paintings are damaged, the level of artistry is high, and the stories behind them wonderful.
The second monastery we visited, was the unisex Debre Maryam Monastery. The original building dates from the 14th Century, but the monastery was rebuilt in the 19th Century. There are many reasons someone might choose to visit Ethiopia. I’d argue that the opportunity to see magnificent ancient texts, illuminated with beautiful illustrations and pictures, in a 14th Century monastery on a tranquil island in the middle of Lake Tana, is as good as any.
As we motored back across Lake Tana towards Bahir Dar, we saw several traditional reed boats used for transporting things around the lake, and for fishing. I was reminded of these boats when I was at another high altitude lake, thousands of miles away on a different continent – the reed boats of Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia.
There are dozens of monasteries on and around Lake Tana, I just wish we’d had a week to do them justice. Some of the most remote, and most untouched by tourism, are a round journey by boat of ten or twelve hours, each requiring a day’s travel there and back. Next time, next time…