Lake Tana Monasteries

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Things to do


Date of travel

January, 2016

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To visit the monasteries of Lake Tana in Central Ethiopia, we took a boat from the jetty of our hotel, the “Kuriftu Resort and Spa”: The boat was a rather swish affair with comfortable, padded cream leather seats with a green stripe and maroon awning.

Lake Tana is the largest in Ethiopia at 65km wide and has 36 islands, many inhabited, with 20 of them having monasteries or churches.

We passed a huge group of pelicans in the distance that appeared to be walking on water before reaching the peninsular and our first monastery, Bet Ura Kidane Mihret. We collected the obligatory guide who set off rather quickly up a steep and stony path bordered on both sides by souvenir sellers and through a variety of trees: coffee, kumquat, ebony, sycamore and lemon. The walk took around 30 minutes with many ‘no thank yous’.

The monastery was a circular building with bamboo around the outside. After taking off our shoes we went inside and found an inner walkway with four entrances (huge wooden etched doors) and a second inner walkway, covered with reed mats around the square holy of holy’s containing the replica of the Ark of the Covenant – it is only accessible to the highest people.

The 20 foot high walls were beautifully painted (but on canvas on the walls) with colourful biblical scenes, many of them very gory. They were painted 100 and 250 years ago but some had been renovated. The guide was a bit annoying as he kept rushing us around so we tried to slow him down. We then went into the small museum to see the usual range of objects behind glass: parchment books, crowns, incense burners, robes etc.

Back on the boat it was a short trip to Azuwa Maryam but this time we stopped en-route to see small round mud huts where young people stay when training in religious matters. They sleep three to a hut and on peering through the low door, we could see two beds and one higher up bunk bed style. A man started chanting from a book just as Eskedar was trying to explain what was happening. The monastery was similar, but smaller and having asked what the difference was in the paintings, I was told they were by different artists.

This time the museum was in a small hut and we waited for the guardian to open two wooden shuttered windows so we could peer through at the range of treasures although he brought a parchment book and put it on a stand on the ledge so we could get a better look.

On the way back the boat took a short detour to see a pod of hippo near to a set of rocks with resting cormorants.

Helen Jackson

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