The mysterious monasteries of Lake Tana

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.

A painting of the Devil, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

A painting of the Devil, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

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.

Painted doorway, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Painted doorway, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

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.

Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

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.

Interior of Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Interior of Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Painted doorway, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Painted doorway, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Paintings, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Paintings, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Debre Maryam Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Debre Maryam Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

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.

Interior of Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Interior of Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Paintings, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Paintings, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Paintings, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Paintings, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Paintings, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Paintings, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

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.

A priest shows an ancient illustrated manuscript, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

A priest shows an ancient illustrated manuscript, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

A priest shows an ancient illustrated manuscript, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

A priest shows an ancient illustrated manuscript, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

A priest shows an ancient illustrated manuscript, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

A priest shows an ancient illustrated manuscript, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

A priest shows an ancient illustrated manuscript, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

A priest shows an ancient illustrated manuscript, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

A priest shows an ancient illustrated manuscript, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

A priest shows an ancient illustrated manuscript, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

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.

Tankwa traditional boat carrying firewood, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Tankwa traditional boat carrying firewood, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Tankwa traditional boat, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Tankwa traditional boat, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

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…

Lake Tana, a walk to the Blue Nile Waterfalls

Bahir Dar isn’t an easy place to love. A sprawling, dusty, bustling commercial centre, it has grown rapidly and urbanisation hasn’t been especially kind. Despite this, it is one of Ethiopia’s major tourist destinations, thanks mainly to its location on the shores of Lake Tana – the origin of the Blue Nile and home to numerous islands occupied by ancient Ethiopian Orthodox monasteries.

Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Men sitting by the road. Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Men sitting by the road. Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

I don’t want to be unfair to Bahir Dar. People are friendly, there are good restaurants, a fascinating market and it’s a fairly relaxed place to spend a few days while visiting the nearby sights. It’s just unfortunate that first impressions tend to be lasting. Our first impression was being shown into a hotel room which looked like it was generally rented by the hour (or segments thereof) and had only recently been vacated by its previous occupants. By ‘recently’, I mean there was money lying on the bed and clothing scattered around the room. A used condom adorned the floor.

Once we’d changed hotels, opting for the relative luxury of the Lake Tana Hotel with lake views from the lakeside bar, things improved dramatically. We contacted a guide recommended to us by another traveller, and set off to visit one of Ethiopia’s great natural sights: the Blue Nile Waterfalls. This was a half day walking trip that took us through some beautiful countryside and interesting villages, to the base of the legendary Blue Nile Waterfalls.

Walking to the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Walking to the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Young girl near Blue Nile Falls, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Young girl near Blue Nile Falls, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Young boy near the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Young boy near the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Walking to the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Walking to the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Known as Tis Abay, ‘smoke of the Nile’ in Amharic, the waterfalls make quite a lot less smoke these days due to the construction of a hydroelectric dam. Although the water flow over the falls is significantly reduced, they are still impressive, with near permanent rainbows created by water spray and intense Ethiopian sun. The sound of the falls is quite impressive close up, but there was a time when they were deafening. The falls are about 45 meters (150 feet) high and around half a mile wide, from a vantage point above them they make a truly arresting sight, but you can’t help but wonder what they would have looked like before the dam.

Children near the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Children near the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Young boy near the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Young boy near the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Crossing a river near the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Crossing a river near the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

When we arrived at the nearby village, called Tissisat, I was glad we’d come with a guide. I saw a couple of tourists being hounded by young kids and adults to buy things or to hire them as guides. This is a poor place and you have to appreciate people are desperate for work, but it can make for an uncomfortable time, especially as self-appointed guides will follow tourists and haggle for cash (sometimes just to go away). We bought some food and drinks in the village, and set off for a two hour circular walk to the falls and back.

Walking to the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Walking to the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Houses near the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Houses near the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Woman in a village near Blue Nile Falls, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Woman in a village near Blue Nile Falls, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

The journey takes you through beautiful countryside, with sweeping views to distant hills. At one point we we had to wade across a shallow river, and then you finally arrive at the falls themselves. Despite their reduced size, they are still incredible. When you stand by the side of them, the spray from the Blue Nile cools you down after walking under a hot sun.

Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Young boy at the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Young boy at the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

After a hot walk we reached another river, which we crossed in a small metal boat, before picking up a car in Tissisat village, and happily returned to the lakeside by the hotel to watch the sun set with a cold beer. Absolutely lovely.

Boat on the Blue Nile, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Boat on the Blue Nile, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopia, home of coffee and the origin of the species

Ethiopia is a beautiful and fascinating country. A country which defies cliché. Yet the legacy of the vicious Marxist government, and the terrible droughts and famine of the 1980s, still frame people’s perceptions of it and it’s people. It is a country like no other, where received wisdom is hopelessly out of kilter with reality. Our twelve days in Ethiopia, splitting our time between Axum in the north, Bahir Dar on Lake Tana and the extraordinary Lalibela, would only be a taster of this amazing country.

Church in the colours of the Ethiopian flag, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Church in the colours of the Ethiopian flag, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

My first impression of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, wasn’t great. I arrived at 2am, and the drive through the dark, silent streets was at high speed. When my taxi arrived at the hotel I discovered my room had been given away. I could see my name on the reservation list, but a European tour group was stranded by a cancelled flight – one of the group was happily sleeping in my bed. Ironically, the tour group organiser came to my rescue, suggesting another hotel. I finally got to bed around 4am.

Not honouring hotel bookings is small fry compared to some of Ethiopia’s more entrenched problems. I was thinking about my trip a few years ago, while reading a recent news article. The only opposition member of the Ethiopian Parliament, Girma Seifu Maru, was quoted saying that the government’s suppression of opposition was storing up trouble for the future. Thats putting it mildly. On my first day in Addis Ababa, a taxi driver pointed out the university, adding that, thanks to a government crackdown on student protests, most of the students were completing their studies in prison.

Ethiopian Coptic priest, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic priest, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic church, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic church, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Things don’t seem to have improved much between my visit and now. Corruption, poverty, a lack of transparency and accountability continue to blight the country’s 94 million inhabitants. As does the proxy war Ethiopia is fighting in Somalia on behalf of the United States and its allies. Yet if Ethiopia’s present is beset with problems, its ancient history might point toward a glorious future.

A lion in Zion, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

A lion in Zion, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Boasting Africa’s richest historical heritage, the human history of the country can be traced back to some of the earliest stone tools (around 2.5 million years old). Around 800 BC, when the Phoenicians were founding Carthage, an ancient kingdom existed in Ethiopia. This gave rise to the Aksumite Empire which, by 300 AD, stretched across the Red Sea to Yemen, and was considered one of the world’s great powers (alongside the Roman, Persian and Chinese Empires). The famed Axum Stelae are evidence of the sopistication of the Aksumite civilisation.

Ancient stelae in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Ancient stelae in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Landscape near Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Landscape near Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Global trade routes, and proximity to the Middle East, meant the Aksumite Empire was heavily influenced by the monotheistic religions that flourished there. There is an ancient Jewish tribe, the Falasha, which has existed in Ethiopia for centuries. The Ethiopian Queen, Makeda, also known as the Queen of Sheba, is supposed to have visited King Solomon’s Jerusalem. Allegedly, Solomon is the father of her child, Menelik, who established Juadism as the religion of the Aksumite Empire.

This may be myth, but it was the foundation stone of legitimacy for Ethiopia’s monarchy. Part of the King Solomon story relates how the Ark of the Covenant was brought and hidden in Ethiopia by Menelik. It apparently remains under lock and key in Axum’s Maryam Tsion Church, and only one living person has actually seen it.

A young shepherd looks over the Blue Nile waterfalls, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

A young shepherd looks over the Blue Nile waterfalls, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

When Christianity emerged it was adopted by the Aksumite Empire, which in 324 AD became one of the first Christian kingdoms. The legacy of this can be seen across Ethiopia. There are monasteries and churches throughout the country, many over 1000 years old – the extraordinary rock-hewn churches of Lalibela being some of the finest examples. As Islam spread across the region, Ethiopia became isolated from developments elsewhere in the Christian world. This isolation has bequeathed the unique Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity to the world.

Young girl in a village near Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Young girl in a village near Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian houses in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian houses in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Given this, it’s ironic that Ethiopia is the site of some of the most significant archaeological discoveries related to human evolution. In 1974, in the remote and dangerous Afar Depression, teams of scientists discovered numerous Hominid bones that are a major piece of evidence that our ancestors evolved in, and migrated out of, Africa. This includes the 3.5 million year old skeleton of Lucy, an iconic human ancestor and an evolutionary ‘missing link’. Lucy wasn’t on display when I was in Addis Ababa, she’d been packed off to tour the United States.

Unique amongst African nations, Ethiopia was never colonised. During the 19th Century ‘Scramble for Africa’, Ethiopia fought tenaciously for its independence from would-be colonisers. The continuity of hereditary monarchy was only interrupted once, between 1936 – 41. The brief Italian occupation left little behind other than second rate pasta and third rate wine. The culture, religion and cuisine remain uniquely Ethiopian.

Rock-hewn Ethiopian Coptic church in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Rock-hewn Ethiopian Coptic church in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic priest in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic priest in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

The hereditary monarchy held on to power into the modern-era, ruling over a largely feudal society. This all came to a dramatic end when, in 1974, Emperor Haile Selassie was ousted by a hardline Communist military government, the Derg. Ethiopia became a Cold War satellite of the Soviet Union, and the Derg unleashed a period of terror. It was the failed policies of the Derg which led to the famine of the 1980s. Propped up by Soviet military aid, it was only in 1991 that the Derg was finally forced from power.

Since then, Ethiopia has fought a crippling war against its neighbour, Eritrea; a conflict that still flares up periodically. It also adopted a democratic constitution, but has lurched from one rigged election to another, keeping the same party in power since 1991. New elections are expected in 2015, their outcome may determine the course of Ethiopia’s future and whether-or-not the bottled-up dissent spills onto the streets.

The Blue Nile waterfalls, one of the origins of the River Ethiopia, Africa

The Blue Nile waterfalls, one of the origins of the River Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopia is also the home of one of humanity’s defining pleasures: coffee. The coffee bean originated in Ethiopia, and Ethiopian varieties are considered some of the finest in the world. Coffee plays a special role in Ethiopian society, including an elaborate coffee ceremony – the ritualised making and drinking of three cups of coffee for each person. As a visitor, you’re regularly called upon to drink coffee several times each day. Its easy to spend your entire time in the country permanently wired.