Published: February 3rd 2011December 30th 2010
9am start for a boat ride across Lake Tana, there are numerous islands on the lake and 39 monasteries. We visit 3 of them and the names given by my guide are slightly different to the spellings in my book, so I'll go with his. It seems to be the norm over here, many road signs have incorrect spellings, even my boarding pass spells Bahir Dar as Bahar Dar!
The first monastery is about 40mins by power boat, we see a few papyrus boats along the way, mainly transporting fire wood. This can take the rower 4-5hrs to transport across the lake in good weather! There are also 2 smaller versions of the papyrus boat, the smallest is for fishing and the medium sized for transporting people. They last about 3-4months before a new one needs building.
The first stop, Betre Mariam is about a 15minute walk up a rocky path from the boat jetty, we walk quickly to overtake a loud Italian group. It is still busy when we arrive at the monastery so I look around alone, to get explanations at a quieter one. The monastery is a round wooden structure with mud and straw walls. There is an
outer room, middle circular room and the central room for priests only. The outer ring has little decoration but the inner ring has floor to ceiling paintings depicting the bible stories. Luckily my guide tells me in advance to take off my shoes and only walk to the right, apparently it is considered evil to walk to the left! Each monastery has a small museum of gifts given from royalty; ceremonial crowns, crosses and the cow skin books used by the priests for mass and other services. This monastery has the largest museum with its own round building, later monasteries only have small square buildings with a front opening window. The last monastery I visit has a new museum in construction, which is bigger than many of the monasteries!
The second monastery is about 10mins in the boat and then another 10 minute walk from the jetty. This is also through dense coffee plants, which are planted purposefully but then left to grown wild.. They are still harvested once a year by the monks. My guide picks one coffee berry but then remembers it is St Mary's day when no work is allowed so he refuses to pick any more.
Azwa Mariam is a much quieter monastery so a guide shows me round and explains the paintings. It about 300 years old, but has had roof repairs a few times, the walls are original though. The paintings were needed to teach the monks as many were illiterate, they depict the main bible stories on 2 walls, the stories of Saint George on one wall and the stories of Saint Mary on the forth wall. Mary is considered very highly in the Ethiopian church. There are 2 doors on either side of the priest's central room, where the arc of the covenant would be kept, and they are decorated with arch angels to protect the priests. The borders of the painting depict the roles of the training monks and the people's faces are the believers and people praying in the monastery. Monks are still being taught in these monasteries, they have small huts as dormitories and a slightly larger hut where they sit and read the services. Each read different parts at once and the teacher corrects them all simultaneously. The scripts are written in ge'ez the ancient language, this is the same alphabet as Amharic, The language of Ethiopia, so
the new monks can read the sounds even if they don't know what it means.
There are 2 types of monk, as a monk cannot get married unlike a priest. A virgin monk became a monk young and has never married, other monks are men who have decided to devote their life after their marriage and children. The virgin monk is considered higher than a priest.
The third monastery is Ura Kidanemehiret, this is larger than the others but the paintings and museum are the same. There are a lot more buildings at this site and more monks in training. While here I also visit an old original house built over 300 years ago. It has a very similar construction to the monastery, but there are only 2 rooms, the outer ring is used one side for coffee storage and one side for animals. The inner room is where the family lived, I am shown many old, original items. Drinking vessels, book stand for praying, oil burner for light, the cow skin bed with papyrus cover and some formal clothing. Outside is a stone setup for grinding coffee and tef, a cooking area for making injera and alcohol, a weaving
loom and a reconstruction of a bee hive.
After returning to the boat we travel another 30mins to the Blue Nile outlet, where Lake Tana joins the Blue Nile. The Blue Nile meets the White Nile in Khartoum to form the Nile.
After a short ride back to town, I go for lunch in the Friendship Cafe, another bargain. Burger, Chips and a freshly squeezed pineapple juice is 33Birr! I then waste the afternoon trying to read my email, after 3 hours and 3 internet cafes, I finally give up that it is not possible when a mouse in a wheel is running the connection! Also not sure who teaches people here but they all think that if you minimise and maximise the window continuously, it will load faster...
There are more photos below