Monastery-hopping is one thing you can do when you find yourself at Lake Tana, in the Amhara Region of Ethiopia. And Bahir Dar is a good place to start from.
A boat ride from its docks to Zege Peninsula or surrounding islands will greet you with abundance of Lake Tana old churches, which overtime has not only formed a peaceful and scenic retreats for residents but also for tourists alike.
The strong conservationist elements found around the orthodox Christianity had helped to keep nature remarkably undisturbed in the Zege Peninsula and its environs.
Lake Tana is the source of the Blue Nile and is the largest lake in Ethiopia. Its islands and peninsula house about 20 monastic churches, with some of them dating as far back as 14th century, says Mastawal, a tour guide who introduced himself as ‘Mas.’
One of the readily accessible churches is Ura Kidane Mehret, covered from top to bottom with murals that tell of Ethiopian ecclesiastical stories and religious scenes from biblical times.
Kidane Mehret is a Ge’ez phrase meaning Covenant of Mercy, referring to Ethiopic tradition that Jesus promised Mary, his mother, that he would forgive the sins of those who ask her to intercede.
If you are female, it is important to know which monastery to visit beforehand as some of them do not allow women.
“It is not meant to make women feel bad,” Mas said; it is so that the monks can perform their duties without distractions.
After alighting at Ura port, the pathway of the half kilometer walk to the monastic church is surrounded by a largely undisturbed nature, with birds keeping us company with their gay chirpings.
Mas said farming was not allowed on the peninsula, except for coffee, which is one of the four sources of income he listed – “Coffee, fishing, firewood-charcoal and tourism”.
Little stalls made of woods and planks line the stony pathway, which is only accessible on foot.
As early as 9am, locals start opening their stalls to display their wares while at the same time looking out for tourists who show interest. The merchandise is predominantly hand knitted colourful cotton veils, assortment of crosses, biblical and Ethiopian paintings on animal skin, jewellery, and items that can serve as souvenir to tourists.
In some of the stalls, you will see the painter at work, or the blacksmith or weaver in the process of making a veil or jewellery.
A stop at one of the stalls manned by a teenage boy was quite enlightening as he showed me a variety of processional cross, blessing and identity crosses, all with different purposes in different designs, shapes and sizes. There seemed to be a cross for everything.
An arch gate built in such away like you are passing a room with similar door on its parallel sides leads the way into Ura Kidane Mehret monastery, and from there, conical rooftops of various buildings can be sighted.
The first major building on the left serves as housing for the priests. Directly opposite it is a building which serves as a tourist office.
A man standing around the vicinity, who works as a community security guard, spotting a pair of sandals, shorts and a dane gun, readily obliged when we asked to take his photographs.
Another gate leads to the church enclosure, A few feet after the entrance of the church are large flats stones tied to poles and used as bells.
A young deacon, Tekle Damte, was at the building entrance to welcome us.
Ura Kidane Mehret also has a conical roof and a round structure, one of the favoured architectural shapes for Ethiopian orthodox churches. It has several entrances for males, females and priests. The tour of inside building is done bare- footed as no shoes are allowed inside.
Tekle told my tour group that even though photographs could be taken, they are to be done without flash. This is so as to preserve the alluring fresco painting which dates back to 100-250 years.
The interior walls of Ura Kidane Mehret are adorned with paintings of saints, prominent paintings of Madonna, archangels, biblical and Ethiopian ecclesiastical stories. There are sections of the walls dedicated to Jesus Miracles, another for Mary, and so on.
The paintings are done in a way that tells a story. They were designed like that “so that they can be understood by illiterate worshipers,” said Mas, our tour guide.
One of the paintings depicts saint Abune Gebre Menfes Kidus, flanked by friendly lions and leopards. His hands are raised upward, with one holding a prayer bead and the other a cross. Besides one of his eye is a little bird which drinks from the tears he sheds whenever he prays.
Another of the painting which caught my attention was that of Saint Yared holding a sistrum in one hand and a prayer stick in another, with a book opened in front of him and several birds by his sides. Yared is credited with inventing the sacred music and Zema chants of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.
Legend has it that as a child, after the death of his father, he was sent to live with an uncle, who was a religious teacher, which was where through divine ministrations birds whispered the chants to him.
The young deacon, Tekle Damte, explained that a mass service could last for up to four hours while holiday service like epiphany could last even longer; hence the need for a prayer stick; a longer version of a walking stick so that worshipers could use it as a support as there are generally no seats in Ethiopian orthodox churches.
He added that the religious language is ‘Geez.’ They don’t use modern musical instruments, except drums and sistrums. They dance by swaying forward, backward and side-to-side while chanting a Zema.
The orthodox churches are generally built following the detailed description in the book of Leviticus; Ura Kidane Mehret is no exception.
Not everyone is allowed access into the ‘Holy of Holies,’ except priests, who can be identified spotting a white turban-like headgear and holding a blessing cross, while monks spot black headgears.
Priests get married, whereas monks are expected to live a single celibate life.
The day of our visit coincided with the celebration of Saint Gabriel Memorial Day. It is a tradition for each church to celebrate its saint, and they generally have different saints and different dates.
We were led to a side of the church to participate in the celebrations, with some of the locals, who were seated on logs, eating Injira, a local staple food and sipping local drinks.
It is worthy to mention that there is a similar church, with similar name, ‘Kidane Mehret’ in Jerusalem, which is round in shape, with a dome of some 30 metres in height.
By the time we finished our visit on the walk-back, the stalls were fully opened and attendants strived to get patronage from tourists.
Furthermore, a local school was in session and the children reciting in unison could be heard from their classrooms to the pathway.
“The children are taught, but they don’t write; they memorise everything” Mas said.
He was probably referring to religious teachings because a few minutes later, some children approached us, not to ask for money or candy, but to ask for pen or pencil.
A coffee shop was opened at the jetty stop, where several boats bearing tourists docked after our arrival.
The shop floor was lined with a special kind of grass, and a young girl was seated behind a charcoal stove with a kettle on it, and by her side was a white chest table where she keeps tiny cups of coffee. She also has a bowl of popcorn. A section of the shops has painting done on animal skin and other materials minded by the girl’s elder brother.
Aside farming coffee, drinking it is a ceremony in Zege peninsula and across Ethiopia. Generally, they drink an average of three cups at a sitting, with the concentration of the coffee decreasing with each cup, a local journalist said. He also confirmed my observation that there was no electricity in the peninsula.
After a beautiful ride around Lake Tana and the Blue Nile, where we spotted hippopotamus and pelican birds, we went to the Bahir Dar market, which could pass for any Nigerian market with a beehive of activities. It generally has the trappings of an average Nigerian market – narrow paths between stalls, similar stall structures and segmentation according to goods, and so on.
All photos by Bamas Victoria