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Ethiopia: Lake Tana monasteries

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Lake Tana monasteries | Ethiopia | Africa

[Visited: October 2006]

Lake Tana is famous mostly as the source of the Blue Nile and as the largest lake of Ethiopia and one of the highest large lakes in the world. At the same time, Lake Tana is also renowned for its monasteries which can be found directly on its shores, on peninsulas and on the many islands scattered all over the lake. It is pretty straightforward to arrange a visit to one or more monasteries from Bahir Dar. Lake Tana is not a clear mountain lake as you might expect, it rather has a muddy colour, at least during our visit after the rainy season.

Picture of Lake Tana monasteries (Ethiopia): Close-up of fighters, arrows and horses in Azuwa Maryam church

The first stop was at Zege Peninsula, housing several monasteries. We first visited Ura Kidane Mihret, which does not look very special from the outside, as the traditional straw roof has been replaced by a corrugated iron one. But once you take off your shoes and step inside, you are bound to be impressed by the very colourful murals all around the inner wall of the church. On it, you can find a summary of Biblical stories, all painted cartoon style. Or are they Biblical scenes? Upon closer inspection, some of the scenes are very cruel: heads being chopped off, limbs leaving bleeding corpses, people hanging upside down from crosses... In one scene, you can even find soldiers with rifles depicted on the brightly coloured wall.

Picture of Lake Tana monasteries (Ethiopia): Colourful door of Azuwa Maryam church

From Ura Kidane Mihret, we visited Azuma Maryam, which had more painted religious scenes, after which we visited the island of Kibran Gebriel. Until some time ago, women were not allowed on the island, now they have to stay near the water. The men went up on an excursion to the monastery of Kibran Gebriel, but stopped by some amazingly complex spiderwebs full of spiders. Once up in the monastery, we were shown some exquisite old goatskin religious books, painted and iron crosses before visiting the church proper. The style was visibly different from the one at the other Lake Tana monasteries, the paintings were much more damaged, but I found the paintings more finely done than the other churches. Furthermore, the building was completely different, with blocks of stone neatly fitting onto each other and forming high pillars on which the church rested. From this small island, it was only a short hop back to Bahir Dar; on the way we saw a reed tankwa, or traditional boat which is very similar to the ones depicted in ancient Egyptian engravings.

Picture of Lake Tana monasteries (Ethiopia): Mural in Kibran Gebriel church
Picture of Lake Tana monasteries (Ethiopia): Colourful representation of religious scene in mural of Ura Kidane Mihret church
Picture of Lake Tana monasteries (Ethiopia): Ura Kidane Mihret church: group of horsemen depicted on mural
Picture of Lake Tana monasteries (Ethiopia): Bloody beheading scene in Ura Kidane Mihret church
Picture of Lake Tana monasteries (Ethiopia): Breastfeeding depicted on mural in Ura Kidane Mihret church
Picture of Lake Tana monasteries (Ethiopia): Colorful doorframe with cherubic faces and wings in Ura Kidane Mihret church
Picture of Lake Tana monasteries (Ethiopia): Ura Kidane Mihret: colourful wall and door with biblical scenes
Picture of Lake Tana monasteries (Ethiopia): Devil depicted on murals in Ura Kidane Mihret church
Picture of Lake Tana monasteries (Ethiopia): Ancient goatskin bible in Kibran Gebriel church
Picture of Lake Tana monasteries (Ethiopia): Roof of Ura Kidane Mihret church
Picture of Lake Tana monasteries (Ethiopia): Kibran Gebriel church: arched pillars
Picture of Lake Tana monasteries (Ethiopia): Priest showing painted cross of Kibran Gebriel church
Picture of Lake Tana monasteries (Ethiopia): Kibran Gebriel church: finely painted mural

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