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Lake Tana’s monastic churches - A view from our expert author
Steeped in mystery and legend, the old churches of Lake Tana form peaceful retreats for their monastic residents and visiting tourists alike.
The islands and peninsulas of Lake Tana collectively house more than 20 monastic churches, many of which were founded during the 14th-century rule of Amda Tsion, though some are possibly older, and at least two (Narga Selassie and Metseli Fasilidas) date to the Gonderine period. A popular local legend has it that seven of the most important 14th-century monasteries were founded by a loosely allied group of monks known as the Seven Stars. These are Daga Istafanos (founded by Hirute Amlak), Kibran Gebriel (Abuna Yohannis), Ura Kidane Mihret (Abuna Betre Maryam), Bahir Galila Zacharias (Abuna Zacharias), Mandaba Medhane Alem (Ras Asai), Gugubie (Afkrene Egzi) and Debre Maryam (Tadewos Tselalesh).
Many of the Lake Tana monasteries remained practically unknown to outsiders prior to Major Robert Cheesman’s pioneering 1930s expedition during which he became the first European to visit all the islands on Lake Tana, as documented in his definitive (but out of print and maddeningly difficult to locate) book Lake Tana and the Blue Nile: An Abyssinian Quest. Architecturally, none stands comparison to the rock-hewn and Axumite churches of Tigrai and Lasta, but several are beautifully decorated, none more so than the relatively accessible Ura Kidane Mihret on the Zege Peninsula, covered from top to bottom with paintings that collectively serve as a visual encyclopaedia of Ethiopian ecclesiastical concerns. Also highly impressive in this regard is the more remote, and modern, Gonderine-era church of Narga Selassie.
(Photo: A detailed painting in Narga Sellassie monastery near Lake Tana.)
Many of the monasteries have fascinating treasure houses. For bibliophiles, Kibran Gebriel, the closest true island monastery to Bahir Dar, is of particular interest for its library of almost 200 old books. At Daga Istafanos, visitors can be taken to see the mummified remains of five former emperors of Ethiopia, notably Fasilidas (the founder of Gondar), while on Tana Kirkos there stand three Judaic sacrificial pillars, claimed by the author Graham Hancock to support a legend that this island was for 800 years used to store the Ark of the Covenant.
Steeped in mystery and legend, the old churches of Lake Tana form peaceful retreats for their monastic residents and visiting tourists alike. As in so many parts of Ethiopia, the strong conservationist element in Orthodox Christianity has ensured that the monasteries practically double as nature sanctuaries. The Zege Peninsula, which supports by far the largest remaining tract of natural forest on Lake Tana, still harbours monkeys and various forest birds, while most of the monastic islands, considering their dense population, remain remarkably undisturbed in environmental terms. Combined with the romance attached to being afloat in a beautiful tropical lake that is not only the largest in Ethiopia, but also the source of the world’s longest river, a day trip to at least one of these monasteries will be a highlight of any stay in Bahir Dar.