Ethiopia Day 4: Lake Tana and the Monasteries
In Bahir Dar I board a boat with Josef for a tour of monasteries on islands and a distant peninsula in Lake Tana. Christianity’s roots go back to the first century in Ethiopia. It was declared the official religion in the fourth. I am visiting a string of monasteries dating from the seventeenth.
We take off across lake Tana through which the Blue Nile flows. The water is brown. It’s the end of the rainy season and if the water gets much higher I envision massive flooding. The lake is smooth this morning and birds skirt it’s surface. Egyptian geese, kingfishers, a variety of ducks, and birds whose names I hear in Amharic and as quickly forget. We sail for an hour. In the distance I see fishermen passing, paddling the same papyrus boats that have floated here for centuries.
The first monastery is Uhra Kidane Mihret, probably the most well known. We disembark and walk up the hill through artisan stalls. “I’ll give you a good price. Maybe when you are finished?” If I say yes I’ll be told I promised when I return. I am drawn to the colorful shawls, making mental notes of favorites for the way back. The monastery is relatively unassuming until I walk inside and see the floor to ceiling murals of Ethiopian religious history preserved in all their vibrance on cotton cloth laid over smooth straw and mud walls. The monasteries are round, a covered walk around them to shield the paintings from both sun and rain. At the center of each is an inner sanctum into which only the priests can enter for the mass. The history of the Bible is on the walls. Jesus, Mary, the garden, the Christian Martyrs, the monks who were influential locally through time. As in Egypt St. George slaying the dragon is popular here.
The monks are quiet, and friendly. Their life is tending gardens, keeping the grounds, keeping the buildings, and praying. Local and pilgrim donations support the twenty or so monasteries on the lake. UNESCO status helps and several are being restored or repaired by organizations from various countries. On the way back to the boat I bargain for some shawls. Buying four gets me a pretty good deal, I think.
We make two more stops at island monasteries, one of which, Kibran Gabrael, does not allow women. It’s a short walk up to the enclave to find the inner monastery closed for repairs. There are always surprises in Africa.
The lake is choppier on the way back but the ride is uneventful. After a leisurely lunch of grilled fish (“What kind,” I ask. “Fish,” comes the reply) and relaxing on the lake shore Ganano loads me in the van and we leave for the ride back to Gondar.
The road is less populated. There is no market today. The afternoon return is as visually beautiful as the previous morning. I stop to photograph the “Finger of God,” the light better going this way, and a boy materializes. He’s wearing a headscarf, more of a blanket. I ask if I can take his photograph. He nods yes, “for money?” After the first shot he tears off the headpiece and poses, quite seriously, thinking I would prefer a picture of him bare headed. I motion that I’d like to have a picture with the wrap and he begins to re-cover his head. I snap away. Afterwards we shake hands and I give him more money than advised. He stares at it for a long moment, gets teary, and hugs me. He lets go when more kids show up and we both know it’s time for me to go.
As we pass back through the mountains I keep thinking about the boy. I’m still thinking about him, in his worn jean jacket with the cuffs rolled once. Miles later, the sun now casting shadows, we pass a distant shepherd leaning on his staff at the crest of a spring green hill. In the flowing knee high grass he stands gazing toward the distant mountains, the same scene he’s been watching for the last five thousand years. Yes, this is where it all began.