The islands of Lake Tana contain more than 20 monasteries, many of which were founded during the 14th-century by a group of monks known as the “Seven Stars”.
From the town of Bahir Dar, I organised a boat tour with help from some fellow backpackers, and we got a boat tour for 4 hours, which cost us 250 Birr each. Steeped in mystery and legend, the old Orthodox Christian churches and monasteries of Lake Tana form peaceful retreats for their monastic residents and visiting tourists alike, but one of the first things I noticed during my foray across the lake was 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.
Many of the Lake Tana monasteries remained practically unknown to outsiders prior to a pioneering expedition in the 1930s. Architecturally, none stands comparison to the awe-inspiring rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, yet several are beautifully decorated, and 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. Be aware that women are not allowed to enter some of these monasteries.
Also highly impressive in this regard is the more remote, and modern, Gonderine-era church of Narga Selassie. 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 which help to support a legend that this island was for 800 years used to store the Ark of the Covenant.
Having always been quite interested in the Orthodox Christianity of Ethiopia, and when you link this with the ancient monasteries of Bahir Dar then it was always going to be a fantastic day out. I can remember taking a lot of photos with both my camera and my iPhone, including some selfies with local school children who were animated to get their picture taken with a “white boy”. But of course the main highlight was to see these monasteries. Most of them are in pristine condition, and it is almost unthinkable that they have been around for so long and have not been reduced to rubble. The mosaics in the interior of some of them were incredible, and easily comparable to anything I saw in churches and palaces in Istanbul. One point of caution, though: I was quite surprised that we were charged 100 Birr PER PERSON for entry to each monastery, so we did the main ones (a rare occasion where I let my friends plan this for me!) and did not attempt to visit them all.
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!