Ethiopia’s Lake Tana monasteries
Experiencing ancient faith at the source of the Blue Nile
It isn’t quite yet Pagume, the thirteenth month of the Ethiopian year, but I do find myself to be seven years younger than I had been just a week ago. While much of the rest of the world is enjoying 2018, Ethiopia, with its own calendar, is still only just seeing out the noughties.
Its calendar isn’t the only thing that makes Ethiopia a unique destination and I clamber eagerly into a small fibreglass boat bobbing in the gentle swell of Lake Tana’s waters to discover more.
The source of the Blue Nile, this highland lake in the north of the country is a place of epic scenes. Above me, the resident pelicans move low and slow over the surface of the lake in a perfect V formation, like creatures from another age. Hippos wallow in the shallows not far away, while at the centre of the lake are islands where monastic life continues in a way that has remained largely unchanged for centuries.
There was perhaps a no better place for Ethiopia’s monastic tradition to flourish than the islands of this inland sea. Safe from the troubles of the lakeshore, a day’s paddling away, man and nature formed a bond which continues today, albeit one that has resulted in nets protecting the ripening fruit on the trees of the church compounds from the paws of greedy colobus monkeys.
Compared to other monasteries around the lake, which date back almost six centuries, Narga Selassie, the church of the Trinity and the Rest (meaning haven or retreat) is almost brand new. It dates back to the late 1700s when the traditional round construction was ordered by Empress Mentewab, the consort to the country’s ruler. Even today, with an outboard engine, slung onto the back of a vessel, the church is still a two-hour boat ride from the shores of Bahir Dar on Dek Island.
Ethiopia is a deeply religious country, believed to be the protector of the Ark of the Covenant, brought from Jerusalem by the son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. Each church contains a replica, hidden from view behind thick velvet curtains in the Holy of Holies. Narga Selassie is no different.
Welcomed by the cloaked live-in monks wielding staves topped with heavy metal crucifixes, I leave my shoes by the grand wooden doors at the entrance, said to be made from a mighty sycamore fig that stood as a marker for its future site. Stepping over the high threshold, I come face to face with exquisite cartoon-like paintings of the lives of the saints, pictograms of the bible for an illiterate populace while the monks stand to one side always on guard. The saints almost leap from the rough walls in the richest of reds, blues and golds, from floor to ceiling.
It’s as far away from a Western place of Christian worship as it seems possible to get, and as I step back into my shoes for the sweaty walk back to the boat, I carry with me a new respect for the faith that keeps these men allied to their ancient religious practices.
How many monasteries are in Lake Tana?
The islands and peninsulas of the lake host 19 monasteries and more than 35 churches, most of which were built during the 14th century, though some are possibly as old as the 3rd century.
SEE – Photos & Videos
GO – Getting There
The town of Bahir Dar is the main gateway to Lake Tana and its island monasteries. Daily flights connect it to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Plenty of long-distance buses also head to Bahir Dar from various cities. Roads in Ethiopia are surprisingly good, though distances are long.
Do – Activities & Attractions
Blue Nile Falls lies just a few miles from Bahir Dar, where the Nile’s waters plunge over a 45m cliff. The creation of a hydroelectric dam upstream means water levels can be low outside of the rainy season (when travel becomes difficult) however.
Stay – Accommodation
A good budget option is the Ghion Hotel, centrally located on the banks of the lake itself. Camping on the lawns is also possible, and it’s a good place to start a search for boat trips to the monasteries for those travelling independently. Those seeking more comfort should try the Blue Nile Hotel, while those looking for top-end accommodation should try the government-owned Tana Hotel on the outskirts of town or the privately-owned Boston Resort and Spa next door.
Eat – Restaurants
The hotels mentioned above all have good restaurants. Traditional Ethiopian meals include injera, a large fluffy pancake made from sour teff flour and served with a variety of sauces, and tibs, a cross between a beef stir fry and stew. The local fish dishes are also well-worth trying. The Tana Restaurant (above Tana Pastry) and Amaneul Restaurant have good reputations. On regular fasting days, some restaurants won’t serve meat dishes – menus are often divided into dishes for fasting and regular days.
Time – Seasonality & Schedules
Although Ethiopia can be visited at any time of year its best to avoid the rainy season between June and early October. The most popular time to visit is from then until January when the country is still green and there are festivals such as Ethiopian New Year (generally the first week of January).
Safety – Possible risks
Ethiopia is very safe. Check boats have enough life jackets for everyone boarding (including crew) and refuse to travel if they do not. The lake is huge, and its waters can become choppy.
Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.
Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.
Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).
Pay – How much does it cost?
Half a days’ boat hire costs from around $30, and slightly more than double that for a full day – the best way to explore the monasteries without rushing. Each monastery charges a small fee of a few dollars, which is the only source of financial support for the monks who live there.
Responsible Travel – Best Practices
It is important to respect the local customs that have existed for centuries, which unfortunately prevents women from entering the grounds of many of the monasteries. Happily, the monks of Nagra Selassie have no such ban in place. Joking about religion will cause serious offence.
Reality Check – Be Aware
The monasteries on and around Lake Tana date back several centuries. Some show their age, and you should not expect perfectly cared for architecture or artwork – the best way to help preserve them for future generations is actually to visit them. Also, be warned it can get very hot on the lake, so take sunscreen!
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