It is now time for a belated post on Ethiopia, the 5th in the ongoing series. I am surprised I still have a large enough pool of photographic material from which to continue to create posts with, but I might be able to stretch to another 2 or 3. This week the focus is on a short trip Pablo & I made across lake Tana in Bahir Dar, by boat & with a guide, to visit the northern peninsula & a small island en route, taking in a couple of monestarial areas.
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We had about 36 hours in Bahir Dar. The first day we arrived in the morning as I recall, dropped our bags in at the Jacaranda Hotel Pablo had booked, & set off immediately for the Blue Nile falls at Tis Issat (see blog post #5). The next day we had an idea to traverse Lake Tana, the largest body of water in Ethiopia, which is 84km by 66km, & is fed by 7 main rivers & about 40 smaller ones. There are several islands on the lake, & many of them have monasteries where ancient artifacts, dating back hundreds of years, are kept under lock & key in small wooden huts, & guarded by monks, day & night.
We hired a guide who, in turn, showed us to a boatman at the small bay on the south side of the lake. The four of us soon set off, the scorching sun glistening off the calm waters of Tana creating a juxtaposed ambience with the glugging chug of the boats light diesel engine, powering us gently forth.
The lake is vast & we were travelling centrally upon, northward to our only island stop, to visit a temple area. Bahir Dar is gradually becoming a tourist destination, it being far less noisy & more relaxed than Addis Abeba, with the attractions of Lake Tana & the Blue Nile Falls in close proximity. So around the edges of the lake hotels are in the making, in preparation for the allure of the western dollar.
Our first stop was an island, fairly central in the lake & quite large. We were told by our guide that women were not allowed past the shore onto the island because of religious laws, & we were to stick close to him throughout our brief visit to the monastery. After disembarking, we made our way through the wooded edge of the island past a man washing clothes at the waters edge, & along a thin well-trodden path into a large clearing. There were a couple of buildings here, one being the monastery building itself apparently, but we were ushered past this area & upwards towards the centre of the island. There were a few men wandering about, who generally ignored our presence, & we saw a several wooden dwellings set back from the path amongst the trees. After a few minutes walk we arrived at another clearing with more wooden buildings. Our guide met with an islander who apparently had a key what looked like a shed, but one we should look inside, & for a price. We payed the entry fee, which was something like 60p each, & the island monk unlocked the padlock & opened the thin wooden door to the shed. What awaited inside was nothing we expected. Artifacts dating back hundreds of years, in the shapes of golden crowns & goatskin parchment religious texts, written in old Amharic, that only learned monks are able read. The shed was no bigger than 3 by 3 metres, very dusty & unkempt. The shelves & glass cabinets were very dirty & delapidated. I managed to take a couple of shots of the treasures, but the windowless shed was quite dark, & the frail, low wattage light-bulbs weak aura did little to illuminate the items of wonder shelved carelessly behind the greasy glass panels.
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This turned out to be the only reason we were brought to the island, for within a few minutes we had travelled back the way we came & were in the boat heading further northward, under the ceaseless radiation of the high-noon sun.
Our main destination, it turned out, was the Ur Kidhane Mihret, an Orthodox Christian church, which dates from the 16th century, on the northern Zeghe peninsula. After disembarking we were lead past sellers of painted parchments of religious scenes, weavers of scarves & coffee vendors. The coffee beans are grown locally within the woodland, an integrated crop; I bought some to return to England with, & we sampled some before we left the island, it was the best coffee I imbibed during my trip.
Leading to Ur Kidhane Mihret there is a woodland 'avenue' flanked by native vendors, selling beautifully crafted goods, but not being collectors of niceties we passed all of them by without a purchase. If you have a penchant though, for such gewgaws, to adorn the walls of your dwelling, or an inclination towards more exotic apparel, then finer goods, created from the ground up, all with locally sourced materials, you would be pressed to find.
We entered the monasterial area, which consisted of dwellings, communal buildings & the main church. The church is the main attraction. It is circular, constructed from wood with a modern steel roof & in it's current form dates back to the 16th century; though was originally founded by saint Betre Mariyam in the 14th century, & is part of a larger complex known as the Convent of Mercy.
This church is one of the few where women are allowed entry, & so is obviously more popular with tourists. The structure is a walled, circular wooden platform built on foundations (I speculate are stone) , & consists of 2 areas of concentric rings surrounding a core room which only monks are permitted to enter.
The outer ring internal wall bears some primitive drawings, which seem to be modern, though it is difficult to tell, & primitively crafted, but beautifully painted windows, as seen below. The walls seem to be made from compacted & dried mud & straw.
Inside the artwork is phenomenal. From floor to ceiling the walls & doors are adorned with awesome murals depicting biblical scenes & stories. This internal area is quite dark, & again I struggled (preferring not to use flash) to capture well balanced bright photographs. I have worked on the images to render them as close as possible to what I saw with my own eyes, but the paintings in reality far surpass in beauty what I proffer you here in digital format.
After leaving the church our guide took us to meet some of the locals. These were apparently monks, & guarded some glass cabinets filled with more ancient crowns & books. Having been shown these precious aniquities we were invited to sit down with them & join in their drinking session. They were drinking home made beer. I have no idea what it was made from, or how, but Pablo & I accepted, I a little more eagerly than my friend, who seemed somewhat reticent, accepting only a small amount ina beaker. I decided to pick up the gauntlet & partake of a whole beakerful, about 3/4 of a pint. The liquid was murky & had a slight oily smell, tasting somewhat of burnt grain (something recognisable at least). We took our time in consuming the lacklustre liquid, maybe over 15 minutes, & although I didn't find the dreadful beverage difficult to drink, I was determined to try to find the 'sweet spot'. I failed. Perhaps I needed more time & more beer, or perhaps there was no silver lining to this primitively fermented decoction.
Having said goodbye to the monks & being guided back to the boat we began our journey back to the hotel. The journey was peaceful & uneventful, traversing the flat surface of the lake, though we were treated to the emergence of a Nile Monitor Lizard as it swam across the mouth of a tributary to the Blue Nile.
But, though the boat was covered, & I wore a peaked cap shading my face, I picked up sunstroke by means of water reflection & general length of exposure to the elements, & this combined with the monkish ale, rendered me sick & immoveable for 12 hours after our return; & a further 20 hours after our eventual arrival by airplane at our following destination, Lalibela (see blog post #8), the next day. Bahir Dar, go there!
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I am a freelance photographer specialising in performance arts.
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