Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Day 306

Monk, Ura Kidane Mehret church, Lake Tana, near Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Our hotel, the Ghion, is situated on the banks of Lake Tana and Christi and I enjoy a relaxed breakfast overlooking the lake before taking a tour to just a few of the dozens of monasteries dotted around the lake. Lake Tana itself is about 84 km long and 66 km wide, with a maximum depth of 15 meters. It is the largest lake in Ethiopia and as I have mentioned before the source of the Blue Nile. As an added bonus all boat trips around Lake Tana include a stop to see where the water exits the lake and begins its 900-mile journey through Sudan and Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea.

Supposedly, the remains of ancient Ethiopian emperors and treasures of the Ethiopian Church are kept in the isolated island monasteries, some of which date as far back as the 14th century. For today, Christi and I decide to join a small tour. They are the usual backpackers, but also an American gynecologist on a busman’s holiday to Bahir Dar (she lives in Florida). She tells us that female circumcision of which Ethiopia is a proponent can go horribly wrong, leading to the formation of internal fistulas (holes) that require delicate and sophisticated surgery to correct serious genitourinary issues. Not surprisingly there are few if any surgeons in Ethiopia with this expertise, which is why she is here. Oh the conversations one can have while traveling.

We zoom across the lake for 40 minutes in a small motor boat, the wind blowing in our faces, to reach our first monastery, Entos Eyesu. We disembark onto a lava breakwall and follow a pleasant trail through lush tropical vegetation (the shade brings welcome relief from the heat of the day) to the monastery, which is a simple round structure. One thing theses monasteries are good at is making money and some of it appears to go on restoring (or replacing) the murals, which look as if they may have been painted yesterday. The murals depict various scenes, but I like the fighting angels best. They may have wings, but they look tough. There are also monks wandering around who are only too willing to show off religious artefacts and allow you to photograph them.  

The second monastery we visit is Ura Kidane Mehret, which is actually located on the Zege peninsula of Lake Tana, rather than an actual island. Ura Kidane Mehret monastery is an Ethiopian Orthodox Church and part of the larger Convent of Mercy complex. The monastery dates to the 14th century, although the present circular church was constructed in the 16th century. Once again there are many beautiful murals, looking rather more jaded than those at Entos Eyesu, together with some prayer drums. The church also has a separate treasury where the most important artefacts are housed, including the crowns of former emperors.

Fortunately the monks don’t force the religion down our throats, are happy to pose for photos, and generally make our visit a pleasant experience. Ethiopia is just such a beautiful and laid back country to explore.

Blog post by Roderick Phillips, author of Weary Heart – a gut-wrenching tale of love and test tubes.

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