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Ethiopia: Monasteries On Lake Tana

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Ethiopia has a number of unexplored sites which are stunning and have greater cultural, historical, religious and economic significance.

The monasteries that are located on Lake Tana and the surrounding areas are the best example in this regard. Among the thirty-seven islands over Lake Tana, about 19 of them have monasteries on them.

The remains of ancient Ethiopian emperors and treasures of the Ethiopian Church are kept in this isolated island. Some of these monasteries are said to have housed the Ark of the Covenant before it was moved to Axum.

Lake Tana monasteries sightseeing

Kebran Gabriel

Kebran Gabriel, the nearest monastery to Bahir Dar, is a principal tourist attraction for male visitors only, as this is one of the places where women are forbidden. Originally established in the fourteenth century and rebuilt during the reign of Emperor lyasu I (1682-1706), it is an unassuming but impressive building with a distinct cathedral atmosphere.

The round roof is supported by twelve pillars made from carved stones symbolizing the twelve apostles. The monastery is also renowned for a magnificent manuscript to the Four Gospels which is believed to date back to at least the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century.

Ura Kidane Mehret

The Zege Peninsula’s largest and most famous monastery is hardly the most attractive on the outside, but its maqdas (inner sanctuary) is beautifully painted. Just a 25 minute walk from the boat landing point will take you to the monastery, winding through coffee plantations under tall shady trees. This monastery was founded in the 14th century by a saint called Betre Maryam.

The circular church was built in the 16th century. Its architectural style is a typical example of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church having mud plastered round wall with conical thatched roof. The monastery is highly decorated with beautifully painted, colorful and vibrant frescoes depicting scenes from biblical lore and from the history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Both men and women are permitted to enter and there is also a small museum, the Zege Satekela Museum, for visitors to learn about hand-crafted objects and musical instruments that are still used by the local communities.

In the peninsula, there are other monasteries such as Azwa Maryam, Mahilzegie Giorgis , Betre Maryam and Yiganda Tekele Haymanot. These monasteries in the peninsula are open for both males and women.

Debre Maryam

The original church was built in the 14th-century (some say 12th century) and was rebuilt by Tewodros in the 19th century.

Daga Estefanos

The third principal attraction amongst the islands of Lake Tana is Dega Estefanos, which, like Kebran Gabriel, is closed to women. Set on a hill around 100 meters above the Lake, a short trek up a winding path brings you to a low, round, thatched-roof buildings that house the monks, and nearby an arch set into a high stone wall leads to a grassy clearing, at the center of which stands the church of Saint Stephanos.

This Monastery is of real historic interest, housing brightly colored ceremonial robes, a 16th century painting of the Madonna painted during the reign of Emperor Zara Yaqob (1434-1468) and the mummified remains of five Ethiopian emperors (Yekuno Amlak, who restored the Solomonic dynasty to the throne in 1270; Dawit, late fourteenth century; Zara Yaqob, fifteenth century; Za Dengel, early seventeenth century; and Fasilidas, also seventeenth century) displayed for visitors to view in modern, glass-sided coffins.

Certainly, Daga Estafanos was popular retreat for several of the above mentioned kings, and its tranquility was reputedly also favored by Tewodros II, who took communion there on several occasions.

According to the local believes, the founder of this monastery, was a saint who sailed to the island in 1268 on a stone boat. The ‘boat’ is still visible halfway along the trail to the monastery.

Narga Selassie

Narga Selassie, which means ‘Trinity of the Rest’, was built on Dek Island, the largest island of Lake Tana in the late 18th century by Empress Mintewab. The church is one of the most peaceful and atmospheric on Lake Tana and is set in an extremely beautiful location.

The church has a Gonderian influence, the inner walls are covered from top to bottom with a riotous and absorbing collection of paintings, most thought to date from the 18th century.

The fine original paintings include a portrait of Mentewab There is also a bas relief on the main entry portraying the Scottish traveler James Bruce with his pipe .James Bruce visited the capital, Gondar, in the late 18th century.

Tana Cherkos

Tana Cherkos, the oldest monastery in Ethiopia, is situated to the eastern shore of Lake Tana where one can observe life and rituals that have hardly been changed since the Old Testament. This monastery had been used as one of the four places of ancient Judaic worship where sacrificial stones are still found.