The Beauty of Bete Maryam Monastery in Bahir Dar

“Faith is a grand cathedral, with divinely pictured windows -standing without, you can see no glory, nor can imagine any, but standing within every ray of light reveals a harmony of unspeakable splendors”.  – Nathaniel Hawthorne

Lake Tana is bejeweled by over thirty-seven islands scattered about its 3,000 square kilometers (1,860 square miles) of water. Around twenty of these islands are home to Ethiopia’s sacred monasteries some dating back to the 13th century. Inside the monasteries is a wealth of culture, history and art found among the beautifully painted murals on the walls and ceilings, all depicting religious scenes from Biblical times. Stepping inside one of these mystical places is like stepping back in time.

Our first stop was at the Bete Maryam Monastery located on the Zege Penisula not far from Bahir Dar. We chose to stop at Bete Maryam which means “the House of Mary” first since it is one of the oldest and most spectacular monasteries on the peninsula and is also a short walk from the boat landing.

A handful of monasteries are located on the Zege Penisula meaning they are reachable by both boat and car, however, arriving by boat is much more picturesque and gives you a perspective of the enormous size and beauty of Lake Tana. If I have the chance to visit Bahir Dar again, I’d opt to take the boat to the Zege Penisula and spend the day walking to see the seven monasteries spread out through the lush, green forests of the peninsula instead of spending all my time on a boat. Some of the island monasteries do not allow women inside so it is important to research which ones you want to see beforehand.

The Zege Peninsula, Lake Tana, Ethiopia

Approaching our first stop: The Zege Peninsula.

As soon as our boat pulled in, a guide (above on a cellphone wearing jeans) was waiting. For a minimal fee, he gave us a tour of the monastery along with detailed information about the artwork we saw inside. Tourists are not allowed to see the monasteries on the Zege peninsula without a guide and his wealth of information made the small fee entirely worth it.

Zege Peninsula Bahir Dar Ethiopia

Heading through the forested trails lined with coffee plants and lemon trees to our first stop.

During high season (January to February), the Zege Peninsula sees about 20-25 boats a day filled with tourists who help support the local economy. Our boat was the only arrival that day so it got a lot of attention. News about our arrival spread fast. Soon we saw local vendors setting up their makeshift shops along the trail. Coffee is the number one revenue source here along with firewood and tourism.

Zege Peninsula Bahir Dar Ethiopia

A vacant shop awaits the arrival of tourists.

Zege Peninsula Bahir Dar Ethiopia

Setting up her merchandise along the trail. We could hardly wait to do some shopping after seeing the monastery.

Christianity came to Ethiopia in the 1st century making Ethiopia’s long history of Christianity unique to most of her sub-Saharan African neighbors. The predominant group is the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church with about 40-45 million members or about half of Ethiopia’s population. Although the arrival of Islam in the 7th century threatened the demise of Christianity in Ethiopia, the religions were able to co-exist and continue to both thrive peacefully together today.  Ethiopia remains the only nation in Africa that was able to survive the expansion of Islam into a Christian state, a pretty amazing fact.

In Bahir Dar, monasteries were built around the 7th century due to the arrival of missionaries who sought to grow Christianity during the emergence of Islam in the area. Today, Bahir Dar’s population is estimated to be almost 90% Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and less than 10% are Muslim (in Ethiopia as a whole, around 34% are Muslim and 43% Orthodox Christian).

The Bete Maryam monastery was founded in the 14th century and the paintings inside are from the 16th century. It was constructed in a circular fashion with three rooms. The first room is the “Chanting Room” where the priest and congregation chants with a prayer stick to the sound of the drum. The second room is the Congregation Room where services are performed. The third room, which is located in the center of the monastery, is the “Holy of the Holy” where only the monks can go. The three sections symbolize the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Today there are 11 monks in the Bete Maryam monastery and around 30 priests. The monks live here while the priests are allowed to get married and live in the surrounding village.

Zege Peninsula Bahir Dar Ethiopia

FIrst sight of the Bete Maryam monastery. The monk lives inside the blue doomed ceiling of the entrance in front. We got a tour of his miniscule home at the end.

From the outside, the monastery did not look like much however once we took our shoes off and stepped inside, it was magical. I have quite frankly never seen anything like it.

Zege Peninsula Bahir Dar Ethiopia

A priest awaits our arrival into the monastery.

Once inside the monastery we were bedazzled by the brilliant, vibrant colors of the floor to ceiling murals all depicting lore from the days of the Bible. Unfortunately the lighting inside was poor and we were unable to use our flash so the photos do not do the paintings justice. But judge for yourself.

Bete Maryam Monastery Bahir Dar Ethiopia

A priest praying inside the monastery.


All the services are conducted in Ge’ez, the ancient language of the Kingdom of Aksum and the Ethiopian imperial court.

Bete Maryam Monastery Bahir Dar Ethiopia

Bete Maryam Monastery Bahir Dar Ethiopia

Bete Maryam Monastery Bahir Dar Ethiopia

Water jugs are ready for an upcoming baptism.

All the paint was derived by local plants and the painted canvas has been glued to the walls. The inside murals are extraordinary works of art.

Bete Maryam Monastery Bahir Dar Ethiopia

Bete Maryam Monastery Bahir Dar Ethiopia

Bete Maryam Monastery Bahir Dar Ethiopia

I had a hard time narrowing down the photos because the murals were so utterly unbelievable. As I walked around the circular wall, I snapped away and laid all the shots out in a gallery.

The outside room is the least decorative but still equally fascinating given the intricate walls and ceilings. Beautiful handwoven rugs line the floors as shoes are not allowed to be worn inside the monastery. Most Ethiopians don’t wear shoes anyway.

Bete Maryam Monastery Bahir Dar Ethiopia

The outer room of the monastery.

The monastery and outer court are thatched, with mud-built walls. The intricate ceiling is made out of juniper and bamboo which is changed every 15-20 years. The massive doors are made from fig and sycamore trees.

Bete Maryam Monastery Bahir Dar Ethiopia

The ceiling of the monastery.

Bete Maryam Monastery Bahir Dar Ethiopia

Outside the monastery we met one of the monks who was happy to pose for a shot and show us his home.

Bete Maryam Monastery Bahir Dar Ethiopia

The monk posing for a shot.

Bete Maryam Monastery Bahir Dar Ethiopia

The monk lives up above the door entrance of the monastery under the green tin rooftop.

Bete Maryam Monastery Bahir Dar Ethiopia

Inside his small room, sleeping and reading room only.

When we left the monastery and took the short five minute walk back to the dock, more markets had sprung up and it was time to support the local economy with some shopping. All of the artwork, handicrafts and jewelry is made in the village by either the vendor or a family member.

Bete Maryam Monastery Bahir Dar Ethiopia

A local woman showing us her merchandise.

Bete Maryam Monastery Bahir Dar Ethiopia

Bete Maryam Monastery Bahir Dar Ethiopia

Bete Maryam Monastery Bahir Dar Ethiopia

Bete Maryam Monastery Bahir Dar Ethiopia

I bought this small painting for my home.

Bete Maryam Monastery Bahir Dar Ethiopia

The vendor’s smiling son.

Bete Maryam Monastery Bahir Dar Ethiopia

Pretty weaved bowls.

Bete Maryam Monastery Bahir Dar Ethiopia

Elizabeth looking at some of the handwoven scarves.

When we reached the dock, the papyrus boat was almost fully loaded with wood. It would take the driver six hours to paddle the short 30 minute ride by motorized boat to the docks of Bahir Dar.

Bete Maryam Monastery Bahir Dar Ethiopia

Our next stop was going to be at a nearby island monastery for a different perspective. Stay tuned…

I was in Ethiopia in June as a reporting fellow with the International Reporting Project. To see all my stories from the trip, click here


  1. You are so right about the monastery not looking like much from the outside but so beautiful within. Another amazing day with you Nicole. Thank you!

  2. ” the religions were able to co-exist and continue to both thrive peacefully together today. ”

    sigh.. why can’t all people get along like that?~

    enough of the images loaded that i am wistful to see them all.. and most likely i will when i go to town this afternoon. goodness i miss seeing your posts… next week i should have the opportunity to catch up w/yours and many more.


    • Yes, that is what I found so amazing about Ethiopia. Compared with other countries, they have two contradictory religions that peacefully and respectfully co-exist. I loved that about it there. 🙂

  3. My goodness what a spectacular post. I was really looking forward to your next one and you did not disappoint. The yellow monk and the Monastery are phenomenal and I did not expect such colors ! I was very surprised by this sentence as well,
    ” Ethiopia remains the only nation in Africa that was able to survive the expansion of Islam into a Christian state, a pretty amazing fact.”. Finally , I always must buy when I see these poor merchants especially if their wares are unusual. What did you purchase. I liked the frame ! Great post.

    • Thank you for the enthusiastic reply! Yes I loved how Ethiopia had two really different religions but got along so peacefully and respectfully. It was really beautiful. I did buy the little frame with a painting on it that the woman in the photo was holding. A little knickknack to put up in my house. I also bought some beads and necklaces. I love these kinds of treasures that support the local economy. Those are the best finds!

  4. My comments mirror the ones above. If only we could coexist peacefully. I wonder if the priests and monks of the 16th century painted the murals? They are incredible. You’ll have to take a picture of the small painting you bought and where you put it in your house. I would love to see your mementos from around the world.

    • Yes isn’t it amazing that Ethiopia somehow lives pretty peacefully. I am not sure who painted the murals. That is a really good question. I should have asked my guide! I’m finding that a lot of these remote places are no where to be found on the internet so it is really hard to find further research or information for my posts. Next time I will take even more notes but it is hard to man with the camera in hand too! 🙂

  5. I love all of your shots, Nicole – and have been following with great interest on Facebook. I think they are all the more interesting because the subject matter is so unusual compared to what most of us are used to. My favourite of your photos is the monk in the yellow cloak posing for you. Very striking image – well done 🙂

    • Thanks so much Marianne! I’ve seen you there liking stuff and I truly appreciate it!!! It is a wonderful country. I loved Ethiopia and hope to see more of Africa someday. I’m intrigued!

    • Andrew, thank you so much for all your comments! It is really wonderful. Comments mean so much! 🙂 Appreciate it and glad you are liking the posts. 🙂

    • P.S. Finally subscribed to your blog! I am sorry for not checking it out earlier…..all your comments made me check it out and I see what I’ve been missing. So now I’ll get your posts! 🙂

  6. anotherjennifer

    Gorgeous photos, Nicole. The colors are amazing. It’s interesting that women aren’t allowed in some of the monasteries.

    • Thanks Jennifer! 🙂 Yes women aren’t allowed in a few of the monasteries due to the strict religion of some of them. Most we were able to go to.

  7. Pingback: The Entos Eyesu Monastery: An island sanctuary | Thirdeyemom

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