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Sunday 1 Mar 2009
Bahar Dar, Ethiopia

Monasteries of Lake Tana Part 2

Ancient crowns belonging...
Ancient crowns belonging...

This monastery, Ura Kidane Meret, still had a horde of treasures to be found in an adjoining museum. The crowns of various Ethiopian emperors and queens dating from as far back at 800 AD were here on display in ramshackle glass cases. No climate-controlled showcasing here. Even a robe or two dating from 14th century were hanging out in the open, but nary a bit of dust or fading was evident. Really remarkable how the items have survived - and securely despite the lack of guards - that alone is evidence for how the Ethiopians revere these holy sites.

Our next monastery, Debre Maryam, built in the 14th century, was equally as special, although for completely different reasons.

"No Entrance for...
"No Entrance for...

First of all, it was the first monastery in Ethiopia that I'd seen openly banning women from entering! A few sites are deemed "too holy" to be soiled by messy women, quite rightly so Cool

Priest shows us some old...
Priest shows us..

It would actually be quite frustrating to be a woman and not get a chance to visit this place because it houses some of the most amazing treasures I encountered in the whole country! The church itself is nothing particularly impressive, but it is the adjoining museum housed in a tiny mud-hut that is the real gem. We were met by a very well-spoken priest that showed us the collection of ancient treasures: more helmets that belonged to ancient emperors (a German guy I'd meet later in the day showed me a photo of himself WEARING one of the 14th century helmets .. the only person before him would have been the dead emperor! Madness!), a collection of ancient 8th century gold crosses, an 11th century suit of chain-mail armour that once belonged to a knight of the Crusades (I was even allowed to momentarily pick it up, it felt a little bit rusty .. I'm sure that if I asked I would have been allowed to try it on!)... and the real gems: several ancient beautiful leather-bound manuscripts written on sheep-skin and dating well back to the 11th and 12th centuries!

Ancient manuscript
Ancient manuscript

Museum at Ura Kidane...
Museum at Debre...

There was even one book in the glass case behind him that dated back about 10 centuries further... so around almost 2,000 years old!! The manuscripts were beautifully painted on every page, like an Ethiopian version of the Book of Kells, yet the priest was thumbing through it (even wetting his finger occasionally to help turning the pages) like it was a HELLO magazine. Apparently they still use these ancient books on a daily basis while praying. The words are printed in the ancient language, Ge'ez, a forerunner of Amharic, yet this is the language chosen by priests when they preach the gospel (like modern priests in Ireland saying mass in Latin).

Not a single hint of climate-control was in evidence! I was flabbergasted, but also humbled at the opportunity to get so up close and literally allowed to TOUCH something so ancient. But this is how things are in Ethiopia (read my Axum entry later for even more proof of this!). And they were all still in such remarkably good condition.

The priest was a well educated individual (a former university graduate, he gave up the professional life for a life of faith and solitude) and understood our concerns about the safety of these ancient manuscripts in such a harsh humid environment. "The mud-hut provides a balanced temperature which protects the books" and he pointed to a dark hole in the roof with a ladder leading up to it. Even from my stooped position, I could see hundreds more ancient books and metallic treasures piled on top of each other in the small room which the ladder lead up to. It's a veritable goldmine of history! I really do hope that the building's structure holds!

Priest and apprentice
Priest and apprentice

After that incredible history lesson, we were whisked off to the final monastery that we were going to visit that day, Debre Maryam. To be honest there was nothing particularly amazing about this C17th monastery, so we didn't really stick around too long. We were thoroughly satisfied by what we had witnessed in the first two monasteries and would have stories to tell for years over that! Smile

The only thing that was really photo-worthy at the last monastery was the priest with his deacon "apprentice" as we were leaving. Many young "priests in training" take up positions alongside elders in monasteries. I met several of these in Lalibela as that town is a major hub of Orthodox churches.

I said my usual "salaam" (meaning "peace" as in the arabic "salaam alaykum", but used in Ethiopia as "hello" also) and then "Ameuseugenallo" (which means "thank you", a far cry from the simple "Ahsante" in TZ!!) and bid my farewells.

On getting back to Bahar Dar, I went out for a last coffee with Heile (Ethiopia has the best coffee in the world incidentally, as it was created here originally! The brief Italian occupation also had an effect and Machiatos/Lattes are available universally, even in the most backward of towns!)

While approaching a cafe, we happened to bump into the German guy I'd met on the plane coming over (this is when he showed me the picture of himself wearing the ancient helmet at Debre Maryam). His Ethiopian counterpart was there too, and by the strangest coincidence it turned out that the Ethiopian guy was a first cousin of my guide, Heile!?! They hadn't seen each other in about 10 years! Crazy or what!

Anyway, an eventful day ... yet all was not well and things were about to take a turn for the worse on this holiday....

So far I'd been able to get by with a dodgy stomach, but later this evening I thought I'd take another few laxative pills to make sure all was ok. I also had a fish dinner.

One or the other had a detrimental effect on me as from around 6pm that day.. until 3 days later .... I was seriously ill and threw up whatever I drank straight away Surprised

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

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Photo Album

  • Mosques...

    Bahar Dar


    Mosques beside Orthodox churches
  • Source of the...

    Bahar Dar


    Source of the Blue nile!
  • Ancient books!

    Bahar Dar


    Ancient books!
  • Priest shows...

    Bahar Dar


    Priest shows us some old metal work