Reputed to be the source of the Blue Nile River which along with the White Nile River makes up the longest river in the world, Lake Tana has for centuries played a significant role in the evolution of Nile civilisations. Demola Ojo writes from its shores…
Landlocked Ethiopia is defined by high altitude, rocks and hills. The city of Bahir Dar has all these features, but with an additional attribute. Loosely translated to mean “waterside city”, Bahir Dar is blessed with Ethiopia’s largest lake, Lake Tana.
Situated in a volcanic trough formed by an eruption millions of years ago, Lake Tana has long held economic and cultural significance for the people of Ethiopia and beyond. For centuries, fishing has been a commercial activity in the region. The lake has also been an important means of transportation.
In recent times, it has helped in attracting tourists with many hospitality outlets taking advantage of the calming, scenic views it offers. The sight of the sun rising from behind the surrounding hills and reflecting off the lake which sits at an altitude of 1,800 metres above sea level is one to savour.
And the calm waters of the lake means boat cruises and watersports are an attractive proposition for both visitors and locals to indulge in.
Lake Tana serves as a bridge between classical and modern Ethiopia. The lake has 37 islands which due to their inaccessibility in times past, now serve as repositories for Ethiopian Orthodox Christian tradition.
Twenty of the islands are churches and monasteries, some dating as far back as the 13th century. These islands are storehouses for Ethiopian church art, religious parchments, crosses, crowns and royal regalia which have been preserved over the years.
To understand how Lake Tana attained its prominence over the centuries, it is important to mention its relationship to the Blue Nile. Lake Tana flows into the Blue Nile which along with the White Nile (which has its source in Lake Victoria), forms the famous River Nile.
The Blue Nile is a source of pride for Ethiopians; it is one of the rivers mentioned in the bible where it was referred to as Gihon in the book of Genesis. The Blue Nile has been very important to the Nile civilizations of Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan and because of this, many people over the years have sought its source. In the process, they find Lake Tana.
As a sanctuary of faith for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, many adherents have embarked on pilgrimages to Lake Tana, its many islands and the adjoining landforms including the Zegie Peninsula which is home to the Azewa Mariam, a 13th century Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church. The Azewa Mariam is referred to as the “Painting House” of Lake Tana churches.
The journey from say, the Grand Hotel Bahir Dar to Zegie Peninsula takes between 30 minutes to an hour depending on the speed of your watercraft.
It is normal to see different birds, including swans which bob gracefully on the lake without betraying how furiously they’re paddling to stay afloat. Hippos can be seen too. They look like black rocks jutting out of the water and only when they submerge, then surface do you realise what they are living.
The ferry captain that conveyed us (media personnel and tour operators from Nigeria) wore his dreadlocks with pride. He was keen to share memories of his previous passengers including members of Bob Marley’s family. Despite excited cries of Ras Tafari and Haile Selassie at a point, it turned out he was Orthodox Christian.
There is little at the jetty of Zegie Peninsula to suggest how historic the location is. There is a simple signpost pointing pilgrims and tourists towards Azewa Mariam.
The presence of solar panels was one of the few modern signs at this location which in many ways is a throwback to hundreds of years ago.
Lining parts of the footpath that leads to the monastery are stalls where indigenes display local craft for sale.
The mementoes and memorabilia range from coins to crosses, shawls to dresses, artwork to necklaces. The salespeople are of different ages, most of them are barely in their teens, some younger.
They implore you to buy their items, explaining in accented but flawless English how proceeds will help their education. “Mister, don’t forget to buy on your way back,” is a recurrent refrain.
The monastery still maintains its original look, oval in shape, mostly thatched. The modest exterior doesn’t prepare you for what is inside. To gain entrance, you remove your shoes as a sign of respect. Inside is lined with colourful mats but they are no match for the vivid paintings on every inch of the walls.
The 19-century paintings depict various stages in the life of Christ, as well as images of the Holy Family, different angels, saints and other interesting characters who lived lives worthy of being retold. OF course, the devil is also painted and can be recognized by its beastly, unbecoming image.
The features of the paintings are thought-provoking; more African, less Caucasian. This is surely of interest not just for pilgrims but also students of history.
The monastery and its paintings are – along with numerous other historical sites in Ethiopia – pointers to a people with rich history and centuries of civilisation.
It serves as an eye-opener for many, especially those of African heritage. More evidence that Africa was never the Dark Continent as it is sometimes referred to. This was the basis of conversation on the ferry ride back to Bahir Dar, as the sun slowly sank behind the hills, its last throes of fiery orange flickering over the surface of Lake Tana.