Soft air blowing your hair while you’re on a boat that takes you through a vast lake, which is dotted with 37 islands that are home to different monasteries and churches. This isolated and magical place is located in Ethiopia so if you want to appreciate their rich Christian heritage and learn about their history, we highly recommend you to visit the islands of Lake Tana.
Usually, when someone talks about an African country our firsts thought tend to be related to famine and drought, but Ethiopia has more history and historical sights than any other place in sub-Saharan Africa. The main difference between Ethiopia and other Christian countries is that their beliefs weren’t imposed by Europeans missionaries, therefore they adopted Christianity but developed its own Coptic Church, with its own art and history that are really important to its people.
Your journey starts at the moment you take a boat to cross Lake Tana’s brown waters, where you will feel like you’re stepping back in time as you get deeper and deeper into them. From Bahar Dar to the island of Tana Cherkos, you will see some fishermen paddling out in their traditional tankwa (red boats) to check their nets. Sometimes those boats are followed by pelicans who try to catch the fish and wait for the odd scrap to be thrown to them.
One of the most historic islands is Tana Cherkos because Ethiopian lore says that the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba brought the Ark of the Covenant back from the Holy Land. It was hidden there for some years before being moved to Axum, where it is nowadays. When you arrive here, you will feel that the monks who live there don’t trust you, but still, they will show you the historic painted church and their store of treasures.
All these churches and monasteries have collections of historical artifacts, and with just a small contribution you can have a chance to see most of them. Therefore, you will see Ethiopian crosses, crowns of the country’s various kings, and illuminated bibles which are written in the ancient religious language of Ge’ez.
On the other hand, it’s important for you to know that some of the monasteries are closed to women, but a number of them are open to everyone. These include the Ura Kidane Mehret on the Zege peninsula, Narga Selassie on the island of Dek, and the Intoes lyesus convent. The most decorated of them is the Ura Kidane Mehret: it has paintings that show scenes from Ethiopia’s history and religious tales, seemingly unaffected by the passing of time.
Also, you can find a similar explosion of colors on the walls of the inner sanctum of Narga Selassie monastery, where you can have access to the content of the monk’s small museum if you’re willing to make a small donation.
Seeing all the monasteries and churches on Lake Tana will take you around two or three days, as some distances can be long and the boats may seem slow to you. For that reason, we recommend you to see the Blue Nile Falls if you want to take a break. They’re about an hour’s drive from Bahar Dar. By going through these islands you will not only get to know a different place but also its culture and their history; therefore, this will be an experience that you will always remember.
Just for you to know
Ethiopian Airways fly to Addis Ababa. It also has a full domestic network that will take you to many Ethiopian historical cities. If you’re short of time, organizing land arrangements can be difficult. Also, “Journeys by Design” are specialists in African travel, and as well as the name suggests, they will create custom itineraries just for you to go and see the Lake Tana.
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