“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
All the services are conducted in Ge’ez, the ancient language of the Kingdom of Aksum and the Ethiopian imperial court.
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.
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.
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.
Outside the monastery we met one of the monks who was happy to pose for a shot and show us his home.
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.
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.
Our next stop was going to be at a nearby island monastery for a different perspective. Stay tuned…