Sign in or Create your own Travel blog
Select Location: 

View Entire Trip

Share |
    

Sunday 1 Mar 2009
Bahar Dar, Ethiopia

Monasteries of Lake Tana Part 1

Early start again (this was becoming annoyingly common on this trip!) as I got up to meet Heile and the boat. Heile explained that to keep the low price we agreed that I would need to have some others join me on the trip, so a group of 3 German guys (also working in Ethiopia and on a weekend break) turned up. Nice enough bunch, although one of them thought he was pretty smart and would always say crap like "This lake is just like Irish beer eh?" .. I would respond with various slags about Nazis and he sorta backed down a bit Smile

There seems to be a lot of German investment in Ethiopia for some reason, and the guys explained that the current Ethiopian prime minister had become rather chummy with the German leaders over the past few years.

Regarding tourists, though, the majority that I met were American, which I thought rather odd. In Tanzania it was always, French/German/Eastern Europeans and Canadians. How Americans chose Ethiopia as destination-du-jour is beyond me.

Anyway the boat was leaving for the monasteries early and I got my first taste of the confusion of "Ethiopian time" vs "Standard time" as Heile told me that the boat was leaving at 1. When he told me this I asked "Isn't 1pm a little late??" .. then Heile explained that 1 in Ethiopian time is equivalent to 7am in "our" time. Most Ethiopians I met used a clock that started with "Dawn = 0 hour" (instead of midnight being 0 hour). The easiest way to calculate it is "add 6", although this would cause confusion with the odd Ethiopian that used the standard time. Can be hella confusing sometimes Undecided

Source of the Blue nile!
Source of the Blue nile!

I was kind of hoping we would get into one of the bamboo boats that ply the lake, but apparently those are only used for short local trips, so we got into a little standard boat with motor and zoomed off into the foggy lake.

Lake Tana HUGE at 2,156 km² and is the source of the Blue Nile which flows up into Egypt and out into the Med. We took a brief moment to ride the boat into the "source of the source" which is a large reservoir that spills into Lake Tana. Quite remarkable as people had been searching for the source of the nile for 100s of years. And to think that if you take a whizz here, it'll likely end up in some guy's ice cube in Cairo!

Lake Tana is, of course, also dotted with various small islands that contain ancient Orthodox monasteries that were built here by Christians around the 17th century as a security measure (this is also why many monasteries in Tigray up in Northern Ethiopia are built in precarious positions), but also to aid in the solitude and privacy of the monks. The monasteries are steeped in history and one was even reputedly used to hide the Ark of the Covenant (now supposedly in Aksum - which I would visit later), but many of them still act as secure holding places for the remains and treasures and ancient Ethiopian emperors and we would later encounter glass cases full of helmets dating back as far as the 12th century!

The 3 German guys had requested the list of monasteries they wanted to visit on the 1/2 day trip beforehand, so I had little say in the matter. I originally planned to go visit the monastery on the island in the centre of the lake, Narga Selassie, but not realising the true size of the lake - or how long it would take to travel to each island - I was later glad of the itinerary we took as to get halfway across the lake and back takes an entire day in a small boat! Still, I was paying 50% of what they Germans were so I wasn't too bothered (Heile had managed to swindle them, but my mad 3133+ haggling skillz denied him)

Kebran Gabriel wall...
Ura Kidane Meret wall...

St George
St George

Our first monastery was found on the Zege Peninsula, called Ura Kidane Meret, was a truly excellent starting point. It dates from the C16th and features a stunning collection of murals on the maqdas (inner sanctuary). The paintings depict various stories from the bible and even include some stories which are particular to Ethiopia (including their take on the St George killing the dragon). St George is the patron saint of Ethiopia and many churches (including the famous Bet Giorgis in Lalibela) are dedicated to him. I found it unusual as up until now I'd always assumed he was an English knight.

Our guide in Kebran...
Our guide in Ura...

Kebran Gabriel wall...
Ura Kidane Meret...

We spent a good hour here absorbing the rich atmosphere as our guide told us the history of various aspects of the paintings. The pictures are actually painted on a fabric which is draped over the wall of the inner sanctum. This is because the paints themselves are plant-based so would not look well on wood (the faded paintings on the doors are testament to this). Some of the paintings were touched up in recent years, but the majority had stood the test of time remarkably well!

Many of the paintings were rather gruesome showing how various saints died, even one showing a saint dying of dysentary! Yick.

Despite the guide's very interesting narrative, I was hypnotized by the place and tended to wander off on a camera-shooting frenzy. It was like being on the set of an Indiana Jones movie, an ancient temple containing (literally) the Ark of the Covenant.

Ancient ostrich shells
Ancient ostrich shells

This particular monastery had a congregation of kids outside that were well versed in selling useless trinkets to tourists (in fact it was the only one ... the island monasteries tended to only have priests on them), yet I decided I had yet to buy any souvenirs on this trip so I opted for a rather cool painting on a sheep skin (complete with sheep hair on the back and sticking out on the sides) and also an antique painting on a cross-shaped wooden frame that I bought for Mum (which incidentally she loves.. still trying to find a damn place to hang it though!)

The roof of the monastery had a spire with 7 huge ostrich eggs stuck on it. Apparently the egg shells are the very same ones that were placed there when the monastery was built in the 16th century. Testament to some damn strong shells right there!

(continued on next pa

2 Comments for this Travel blog entry

sis Says:

23 March 2009

Telling the time is confusing in East Africa - Kswahili also tells it backwards... put the 'easy learning CD' away when I got to that chapter!!! :) Really loving the blog... you should do this for a living!! :) x

peterforan Replies:

23 March 2009

aw shucks.. it ain't that good ;) ... well ok maybe it is ... but it takes a lot of effort to write ;)

yihenew Mihiretu Says:

26 June 2009

Ura not established 16c. It was 14c.

From your Guide.

peterforan Replies:

26 June 2009

even better! :)

I bless the rains down in Africa

Travel blog by peterforan

Day 3  ... Lookin forward to Uhuru peak, Kilimanjaro

Day 3 ... Lookin forward to Uhuru peak, Kilimanjaro


With Toto's defining tune ringing in my head, I don khaki pants and venture full-throttle into Africa! Elephants, lions, huge mountains, men with spears intent on stabbing me (probably) and the "Cradle of Humanity" (tm)... 4 weeks ain't gonna be enough!

visitors: 223,481

Currently in:

Dublin, Ireland

Buy this Blog on CD!  More...


Makes a great gift for anytime!

Photo Album

  • Mosques...

    Bahar Dar

    Ethiopia

    Mosques beside Orthodox churches
  • Source of the...

    Bahar Dar

    Ethiopia

    Source of the Blue nile!
  • Ancient books!

    Bahar Dar

    Ethiopia

    Ancient books!
  • Priest shows...

    Bahar Dar

    Ethiopia

    Priest shows us some old metal work