One day dedicated to a few of the churches and monasteries of lake Tana allowed me both to sit in a motor boat for the first time and to step in to the giant water body of Lake Tana.

The mysterious Tana with a surface area of 3673 square Kilometres in the largest inland Lake in Ethiopia. In Size Lake Tana ranks third in Africa next to Lake Victoria and Tanganyika. The lake is located in the central highland plateau of North West Ethiopia at about 1820 meters above sea level and about 565 Km north west of Addis Ababa ,about 35 km south of Gondar and adjacent to the town of Bahir Dar, in the Amhara regional state.

Although Tana is often indicated as the source of the Blue Nile, the Gish Abbay rising, in the middle of Gojjam, is the real source of the Nile. Rising southwest of Lake Tana it flows northwards across the plateau, enters the lake and flows out with tremendous force to the south east adjacent to Dabra Mariam monastery Thirty Kilometers downstream to the south from its out flow the ‘Father of rivers’ creates the most dramatic spectacle of the Tiss Isat Falls.

The thirty-seven Islands on the lake shelter nineteen churches and monasteries and another fifty are on the peninsulas and along the shores of the lake. The other churches and monasteries of Lake Tana under discussion can be categorized in to four groups: the southern, eastern, Northern and the central boats Central. Boats can most conveniently approach the churches and monasteries of Lake Tana from Bahir-Dar, at the southern extreme of the lake which can be taken as a base of visitors and hence the place to start the exploration. According to the canon and tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, access to the monasteries, which are inhabited only by monks and hermits, is only for men. Keberan Gebriel, Tana Kirkos, Rema Kidanmehrate, Mitsele Brigeda, Angara Mandaba and Daga Istifanos are those monasteries still closed to women.

Kebran Gebriel Monastry

The southern group consists of Dabra-Mariam, Keberan, Intones and the churches and monasteries of Zegie peninsula. The Island monastery of Dabra Mariam can be reached within only few minutes by boat. Keberan and Intones are situated on small and adjacent Island, northwest of Dabra Mariam, about an hour cruise from Bahir Dar.

Zegie, the largest peninsula of Lake Tana, still covered with very dense forest, protrudes form south-western shore of the lake. It shelters six churches and monasteries: Zegie Giyorigis and Betre Mariam on the waterfront, Ura Kidane Meheret and Azwa Mariam to the sourth and Yieganda Takla Haymanot and Dabra Sellasie to the southwest. There are two ways to reach Zegie. It takes about an hour and a half by boat across the lake (14 KM) or about half an hour on land along the south-western shore of the lake (23 Km) from Bahir-Dar. The bumpy gravel road is a difficult journey, especially during the rainy seasons.

The second group contains the churches and monasteries within and along the eastern part of the lake. They are Tana Kirkos, Dembeza Quesquam, Kristos semera, Mitsele Fasiladas, Rema Medhane Alem, Korata Walata Petros and Mitraha- Tsion, Tana Kirokos is an island monastery that lays on the reed- fringed eastern shore. It is connected with the main land during the dry season when the water of Lake Tana recedes. Dembeza Quesquam, Kristos semera, Mitsele Fasiladas, Rema Medhane Alem, Korata Walata petors and mitrahatsiion. Tana-Kirkos is an island monastery that lies on the reed-fringed eastern shore. It is connected with the main land during the dry season when the water of Lake Tana recedes. Dembeza is also in the southern extension of the same island separated from Tana Kirkos only by a very narrow cleft, which is difficult to cross during the rainy seasons.

Lake Tana (Google Map)

Slightly north of Tana Kirkos, at the shore of the lake is Kristos Semera. Mitsele Fasiladas and Rema Medhane Alem are island monasteries on the tiny and adjacent islands, south east of Tana Kirkos and Korata Walata Petros is at the shore further southeast. Mitraha is another island monastery; close to the north-eastern shore of Lake Tana, far away to the north form Tana, far away to the north form Tana Kirokos.

It takes about two hours and a half to reach Tana Kirokos by boat form Bahir-Dar. Another alternative is to drive on the bumpy gravel road (Some 16 kms) from Hamusit, a small town 30 Km from Bahir Dar, on the way to Gondar. However, the road is not always open to vehicles and it may be a walk of 3-4 Hours.

Around Gorgora, the early 17th century town at the northern end of Lake Tana, are Dabra- Sina Mariam, Angara Takla-Hyamanot, Birgeda-Mariam, mandaba Medhane alem, Gelila lyesus and Jebera Mariam .East of the harbour of Gorgora, adjacent of its fence is the grove of eucalyptus, olive and other trees, lies Dabra-sina Mariam.

Angara Takla Haymanot and Birgeda Mariam are two side-by-side monasteries; on tiny separate islands about twenty minutes cruise form New Gorgora. New Gorgora is about 75Km across the lake from Bahir Dar which takes about eight hours cruise and 65 Km south west of Gondar, and linked by a good gravel road.

Mandaba is a peninsula monastery to the south west of Gorgora and it takes about twenty minutes by boat and about thirty by car on the bumpy gravel road. About 13 miles further southwest and south of the ruins of Suseneyos place of old Gorgora is the island monastery of Gelila lyasus. Jebera Mariam is found on a very small island to the north of Gelila.

The last group comprises the churches and monasteries of the Island of dek, around the centre of Lake Tana. It is difficult to Know why the island is give the name “Dek” which means small in Geez, when it is the largest island in Lake Tana. Dek is also to only island of Lake Tana populated by the laity. The island is a plain area that hosts eight churches and monasteries. This group includes: Gadina Giyoris, Zibd Lyasus Kiddest Arsema, Kota Mariam Mehella Kidane Meheret, Joga Yohannes, Nerga sellasis and Daga lstifanos

Daga Estifanos Monastry

Narga is situated about forty meters off the western shore of Dek and attached to it by a substantial stone causeway. Gaga is another separated and hilly island a few minutes cruise from Dek. Both Narga and Daga have fairly constructed ports and they can be explored directly from Bahir Dar or form Gorgora. Dek is about thirty seven kilometres away from Bahr-Dar.

The Island of Tana Kirkos is an exceptional spiritual retreat long before the introduction of Christianity to Ethiopia. Monks of some monasteries claim that their monasteries dated to the 13th century. However, most of the churches and monasteries of Lake Tana date from the 14th century and to the Gendering period of the 17th and 18th centuries. Though originally built in the 14th century, and some even earlier, many of the churches and monasteries were renovated and reconstructed during the gendering period.

Prior to the arrival of these hermits and monks, many of the islands and peninsulas were feared and avoided by the local people who considered them as homes of diabolic serpents. There is a story that Abba Za-Yohannes, the founder of Keberan, was arrested at Zegie because he killed the serpent worshipped by the local people of zegie. The local people also worshipped the Nile River and used to pay divine honour. Thousands of cattle were offered to the spirits supposed to reside in the river as its out from Lake Tana and some people still perform the tradition seasonally at the same sport.

Inside Ura Kidane Mihret Monastry

Most of the monasteries are in places of great importance for their biodiversity, still enveloped in ancient, dense forest. These days deforestation is the most serious problem of the country, but grove forests with large and leafy trees remain, which cast shade even in daytime. Many plant species, which have disappeared in most parts of the country, are well preserved here. So the monasteries serve as centres for the study of indigenous plant species and are also banks of knowledge on the types and uses of medicinal plants. Many of the islands and monastery grounds are also the breeding bases for number of bird species. They can be vested, therefore, also by bird lovers and ornithologists.

However, the main focus of this journey is to describe the Religious heritage possessions of the churches and the monasteries. Due to destruction through centuries, only a few of the actual churches and the monasteries. Due to destruction through centuries, only a few of the actual church buildings can be dated earlier than the 17 th and 18 th centuries. Because many reconstructions took place at the sites of te destroyed churches and monasteries and since their architectural history is not always clear, it is difficult to know to what extent the new buildings are similar to the Originals.

With the exception of the two rectangular structures of Tana Kirokos and Dage Istiphanos. Almost all of the earlier Church buildings in Lake Tana are round or octagonal. Even the existing rectangular buildings are not original. They were destroyed and reconstructed several times. Tana Kirkos has been reconstructed in the time of Emperor Yeshak for the fourth time and in the time of Zara Yaekob (1334-1468) for the fifth time. During the fifth reconstruction, it is said to have been decorated with ivory, precious stones and whale bones. The present rectangular building was built by Ras Gugsa Wole of Begemeder in the first half of the 20 th Century. Daga had been struck by lighting and reconstructed in the time of Yohannes IV.

The rectangular structures of Daga and Tana Kirokos have six entrances with huge wooden doors and many of the round churches have from eight to twelve entrances with massive wooden doors. Between the doors appear fine arched and shuttered windows. The doors and the windows are beautifully carved out of heavy timber.

Dabra Marima, Keberan, Ura Azwa and Debra Sellasie in to south, Rema, Mitsele and Mitraha in the east, Dabra Sina and Mandaba in the north and kota and Narga in the centre are typical of the round churches in Lake Tana. Though reconstructed several times and the thatched roofs of many replaced by corrugated iron sheets, attempts are made to keep their previous architectural styles. Azwa, Dabra sina, and Kota are the most typical surviving round buildings in the original style. They still have their compact wooden walls dabed with mud and straw and conical roofs, covered beautifully with grass. These three buildings were restored several times. The grass covers of the roofs are usually replaced every five or six years. They are renowned also for their wooden doors, windows and heavy wooden beams.

Ura Kidane Mihret

The twelve symbolic and marvellous dark red and woked stone internal pillars, encircling the Makdas and the twenty-eight external columns, surrounding the church, make Keberan unique in the southern group in having such beautiful architectural decorations. Arched and ornamented at the top, the twelve internal pillars exemplify the twelve apostles of the Holy Bible. Keberan stayed grass roofed until it was replaced with corrugated iron sheets in 1956, a project financed by emperor Haile Sellasie.

Narga Sellasie in Dek can compete with Keberan. It imposing building structure and its external turrets corresponds to typical Gondarine architectural style. The Church is surrounded by twenty-nine arched and ornamented reddish stone columns and has twelve entrances with heavy wooden doors and window. The spectacular architectural design of naraga testifies to the knowledge and skill of 18thcentury Ethiopian craftsmanship. Originally established in 1748 by Mentewab, narga was renovated and covered with corrugated sheets of iron in 1956. It is said that the maintenance was carried out under the direct instruction of emperor Haile Sellasie and financed by the government. The iron sheet roof has now been covered with grass to preserve its original appearance.

The walls of most of the churches and monasteries are embellished with starting and fascinating depictions of the Trinity, the life of Christ and St. Mary, angels Saints postles and the martyrs. As a tradition in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, each of the four walls of the Makdas, the holy of Holies, is devoted to different biblical and ecclesiastical themes. Though many pictures feature St. Mary in almost all directions, the southern fact is usually reserved for the major events in her life on the basis of Nagara-Mariam(Life of St Mary). Painters usually focus on her intercession on behalf of Belae-seb, who was a cannibal, have eaten seventy- eight people, but was saved because of her influence, her apparition at Dabra Mitmaq(in Egypt) and her death.

The eastern walls represent mainly the tamara Mariam and Tamra lyasus, the hiracles of St.mary and Christ respectively. The northern face is usually devoted to the procession of the equestrian saints. They are identified by the colour of the horses they ride. Shite for St. Georga, black for St. Marqoreyos and brown or red for St. Theodore. Being considered to be the most important form liturgical point of view, the western wall is usually decorated with combinations of major events to form all these themes.

Inside Azwa Mariam, Zege

Though most of the churches have remarkable paintings, Dabra Sina, Narga and Ura are the most famous in their very beautifully painted walls. It is not possible here to describe all the wall paintings of the churches and the monasteries. For instance, Debra Sina Mariam has magnificent wall paintings dating back to the early 17th century. It is one of the churches where the first Gonderine style of painting started. The painting of the church was commissioned by princess Mellekotawit, Sister of Emperor Suseyos(r.1607-1632).

A new technique was introduced in the modelling of the faces. As opposed to the flat and bony faces of medieval painting the faces of figures in Debre sina are shaded with reddish colour making the faces fleshy.

Most of the churches and monasteries of Lake Tana are not merely places of worship, but they are cultural museums, the repositories of antiquities of the country. During their isolation they were used for storing art treasures and religious relics from all parts of the country at times of war and of chaotic situations in the history of the country. For example, during the devastating Christian-Muslim war of the 16the century, Ahmed Gragn, burned and destroyed most of the churches and monasteries in the country including some in the neighbouring area. But he was not able to reach many of the islands.

They include beautifully bound and richly illustrated manuscripts, church paintings, gold, silver and wooden processional and hand crosses and other holy objects. Crowns were the most striking donations of the Ethiopian emperors, and most of the churches and monasteries possess rich collections of crowns.

Some of the monasteries still hold the mummified bodies and remains of several Ethiopian emperors in wooden coffins and glass boxes.

Tanna kirkos is the most prominent for its unique acquisitions, some of which date back to the pre-Christian era. It is the place where are Ark of the Covenant was hidden for about 800 Years and inhabited by the Jewish for many years. As a result, the monastery preserves not only Christian antiquities but also Jewish cultural remains.

Out of the compound of the monastery, to the south, stand three short stone pillars of unequal height. They are carved out of the same grey granite rock, each with a cup-shaped depression at the top. It has been speculated that these hollowed out depressions were designed to contain the blood of sacrificial victims, to be sprinkled on the congregations in Jewish religious practices. The tallest one in the middle is about ammeter and a half high. Graham Hancock describes them in detail in his book ‘the sign and the seal’

It is said that it was during the 4th century, soon after its introduction to Ethiopia that Christianity reached Tana Kirkos. According to church information, the two axumite Kings, Abraha and Atsbeha, together with Abuna Selama are said to have visited Tana Kirkos in the same century. They are responsible for replacing the Jewish temple by a church and taking the Ark of the covenant to Axum.

As a symbol of the victory of Christianity Over Judaism, Abuna Selama erected his personal hand cross over the tallest pillar. Chessman mentioned that he saw this cross placed on the pillar in the early 1930s, but now it is found in the treasury of the monastery. St. Yared who is credited with the creation of the Degwa (Ethiopian Hymn) is also stayed at Tana Kirkos and has written his first Degwa here. He used the pillars for mixing the ink while writing in here in the 6th century.

The Degwa is still preserved in the treasure house of the monastery. The treasury of Tana Kirkos also houses many other Jewish remains. There is a wide but shallow bowl called a ‘gomer’ which is used to contain sacrificial blood, a metal altar, metal stands which are used to hang the sacrificial meat, and a glass bowl which belonged to king Solomon of Israel and given to Menelik I, his son. The glass bowl was taken to Gondar for an exhibition and was broken by visitors there.

Further to the south, at the edge of a cl between two massive stones, there is tomb, which is the tomb Zadox, son of Azaria the high priest Israel. Zadox have come will Menelik I when they brought the Ark the covenant.

Tana kirkos is also the place where St. Mary Stayed for months and ten days during her flight form Herod. East of the monastery, on a very steep and rocky hill overlooking Lake Tana stands a huge stone is where, beside this stone that St. Mar stayed. Among other unique relics at Tan Kirkos many wooden framed 15th century manuscripts depicting saints which deserve special mention.

Next in importance for its unique antiquities comes Daga. Here in the treasure house of the church the mummified bodies of several Ethiopian emperors are displayed in wooden coffins and glass boxes. Chessman writes that in 1935 he observed four gig wooden coffins containing the mummified bodies of seven Ethiopian emperors, namely Yekuno Amlak ()1270-1285) Dawit (1380-1430) and Zaengel (1603-1604), in one coffin; Zara Yajob (1434-1468) alone in on box; Fasiladas and his infect son, Isur, in on coffin and bakafa (1221-1730) in another currently, only the skeletons of Sawit and mummified bodies of Zara Yakob, Susenyos and Fasiladas are displayed. The others are in another room of the building. Besides other many valuable objects the treasury Daga also preserves a framed picture of St’ Mary, which is painted the 15th century, during the reign of Zare yakob.

There are other monasteries with unusual and are relics. Keberan, Zegie Giyorigis and prata still preserve the tururs fircloaks , worn respectively by Abba Zahannes founder of Kebran, Abba Betreariam, founder of Zegie Giyorgis and yalata Petros, to whom the monastery of prata is dedicated.

There is a unique redess chalice at Korata. It was made in the middle east and given to the monastery by emperor Fasiladas. But it was taken to Gondar Fasiladas. But it was taken to ponder for exhibition and its handle was open there by the visitors. Of the illustrated gospels and manuscripts esented in the treasure houses of many monasteries, a gospel at kebran is very special. Each of its pages is brightly decorated with a series of illustration of the passion of Christ and other biblical illuminations.

Shore of Lake Tana

Conservation work has been undertaken on many churches and monasteries. However, some of these operations have had problems. Almost all of the thatched roofs of the churches and monasteries have been replaced by corrugated-iron sheets. But is now considered unstable as roofing materials, for several reasons. Firstly, it is against the concept of conservation. In principle conservation means stopping further deterioration so that heritage properties many keep their original form. Replacing that thatched roofs with the corrugated-iron sheeting is unaesthetic and incompatible with historical church buildings. Secondly, and possible most importantly, the fierce heat of the sun of the tin roof during dry seasons results in hydrothermal variation which is dangerous for the sensitive and aged relics within the church building and treasure houses.

Then a sudden fall of temperature and heavy condensation on the lower side of the tin roof can affect the construction itself and the objects. Under it despite these shortcomings of the tine roofs, of the churches and monasteries of Lake Tana under discussion, only three, Azwa, Dabra Sina, and Kota are still with thatch roofs.

The plan of restoration for the future is to cover the tin roofs with grass, for three basic reasons. In the first place, covering the corrugated iron sheet roofs preserves the original form of the church. Moreover, the grass cover on the tin roofs protects it from the excessive heat accumulation from strong sun radiation and from heavy condensation during sudden falls of temperature. Furthermore, the iron sheet under the grass cover protects the seepage of rainwater through the thatched roofs. However, this practice is not widespread yet.

Source: Ethiopia a Land of many wonders 2004