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Church Spire from the Monestaries of Lake Tana, Ethiopia
NOVEMBER 09, 2007

Bahar Dar - The Monasteries of Lake Tana

Bahar Dar is the first stop on our loop around the historical circuit. If any country has a predefined tourist route then Ethiopia is surely it. Most people visiting Ethiopia tend to fly into Addis, then fly from Bahar Dar, to Gondar finishing their trip in Lalibela before jet setting off again. Unfortunately we could not afford the cost of air fares from place to place, we instead were following the same route - albeit in an unorthodox order and using public transport.

After the run down from Addis I awoke feeling much better, Donna however was now feeling the effects of the flu and so with our recovery in mind we decided to delay any strenuous sightseeing and spend the day languishing in bed.

The following day - feeling significantly refreshed we asked at the Ghion Hotel about trips out to the Zege Peninsula to see the Monasteries. The Manager was extremely forthcoming with information and managed to squeeze us onto a trip heading out that morning taking in the Peninsula, as well as a couple of island monasteries and the source of the Nile.

We paid our boat fees and headed out to the pier. After waiting around for a few minutes the captain arrived and we all piled into the little craft and headed off onto the copper waters of Lake Tana. Oddly enough there were no other passengers onboard, 200 metres out the captain gives us a brief run down of our days itinerary - conveniently missing the Zege Peninsular. Well this is the attraction we specifically wanted to see and his response was that it was too far to take just the two of us for the amount we had paid.

This was no way to start the day so we immediately got the captain to turn the boat around, once on shore the captain had a few words in Amharic with the boss man - things are said which we have no idea about what - before we are involved the captain yells out to us and we set back out onto the water. Great - so we have managed to piss off the boat boy and the manager in one hit.

With no choice but to flog a dead horse, we pushed on with the day. We set off towards the first of the island monasteries on the proviso we would made the trip across the bay to the Zege Peninsular.

At the first island (which turned out to be a nunnery, not a monastery) we disembarked at a cool little stone pier, walked up through the dense vegetation - on these islands the trees run right up to the water - in fact other than a small stone wall going into the water you cannot see any shore as such, past the living quarters of the nuns to the museum which supposedly contains some old bibles etc, our guide was happy to flick through the books with pages made of leather, however they were all in amharic and he was not really in the mood now for a detailed tour.

We wound our way up the path to the main monastery building, however to be honest it was a little disappointing - an old little building - circular in shape with a tin and thatch roof. Donna walked into through the women's entrance and I in through the men's. It was strictly a no shoes no hat policy.

Inside, the church walls were covered with paintings that looked almost new - and on closer inspection they were - so we took a few snaps and waited while a tour guide for another group gave an overview of the paintings and the history of the church.

It was all a bit disappointing so we pulled our guide away who was engrossed in a conversation with the resident monk and headed back to the boat. We pulled off the pier only to find out our guide wants to see the next island, and finish with the source of the nile - we are going in circles. After the last island we thought - lets just go to the one we originally want to see on Zege and keep everyone happy, we convinced him to skip the next island (which Donna would not be allowed on anyway) and push on to the peninsular.

After about 45 minutes of motoring later we pulled up to a stone pier on the Zege Peninsula and getting a local guide walked through the forest to the Ura Kidane Mihret Monastery

After paying the customary entrance fee and removing our clogs we headed in. Most monasteries consist of three sections, an outer ring for chanting, an inner ring for praying, and the inner most section being the holy of holies where they keep a copy of the ark of the covenant - the original being held in Axum.

Ura Kidane Mihret was the real deal - and quite cool actually - the inner ring was fully covered with paintings hundreds of years old, painted on cloth glued to the walls. Each painting depicted scenes from the Bible and were fairly gruesome in nature. The monastery was founded back in the 14th century, while the church was built sometime in the 16th century.

Back in the boat we headed all the way back past Bahar Dar to the Source of the Nile - if ever there was a tourist attraction not worth visiting this would be it. After cruising around the lake for a good three hours, we had seen the locals cruising around on the papyrus boats, we had seen the monasteries, we seen the animals - why the hell would we want to see what looks to be for all intense and purpose to be just another section of the lake.

Well we saw it - and the captain even stopped the boat - sat there for a minute going uuuuuummmm, and then we left.

All in all I kind of had high expectations for the Island Monasteries I had read about them when originally planning the African experience and was expecting some ancient islands with old men in robes walking around chanting. It was far from that, and while Ura Kidana Mihret was interesting enough - it just did not live up to eight months of my mind's wanderings.

We did leave Bahar Dar on a distinct positive note however. While the day was still young we walked down to the village market in search of some local blankets. While wandering through the many stalls we met the son of a shopkeeper who helped us avoid the touts and get a couple of good deals, then walk us through the streets to find a ride onwards to Lalibela tomorrow - no money required

For all the hype Ethiopia gets on the forums and from other travellers about the hassle factor tourists receive from locals - we have found very little hassle - and always a friendly local when you need them.

Oh - and no one has thrown stones at us yet...

Click here to see the Lake Tana Monasteries Photo Gallery (21 photos)

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