Lake Tana’s beauty can only be truly appreciated when you get out beyond the city to enjoy azure waters, a lush shoreline and rich birdlife. But even the lake’s natural beauty plays second fiddle to its centuries-old monasteries, full of paintings and treasures, and some pretty impressive numbers. The islands and peninsulas of the lake host 19 monasteries and more than 35 churches, most of which were built during the 14th century, though some are possibly as old as the 3rd century. These are old repositories of the invaluable historical heritages collected from different corners of the country and skeletal remains of the medieval Ethiopian Emperors.
Southern Monasteries of Lake Tana
Debre Maryam is located near the Nile outlet from Lake Tana. Abune Tselalesh founded the monastery there during the reign of Amde Tsion (1315-1345). The Monastery of Debre Maryam can be reached by boat for about 20 minutes northeast of Bahir Dar. It is also possible to reach there by crossing the Blue Nile River using a boat after driving towards Abay Bridge. It is an ideal site to experience the Nile outlet and a hippo colony. What is more, there are many historical heritages found in the church museum.
Kibran Gabriel & Entos Eyesus monasteries
Kibran was founded in the 14th century during the reign of Amde Tsion and rebuilt during the reign of Emperor Iyasu I (1682-1706). It is the closest monastery from Bahir Dar that lies on a tiny, forested crescent presumably part of the rim of an extinct volcano.
The Zege Peninsula
Ura Kidane Mihret
The forested Zege Peninsula is studded with medieval churches of which Ura Kidane Mihret ranks not only as the most impressive of the southern monasteries but also possibly the most beautiful church anywhere in the Lake Tana region. A saint called Betre Mariam founded the monastery in the 14th century. However, the circular church was built in the 16th century. Its architectural style is a typical example of the Ethiopian Orthodox church having mud-plastered round walls with a conical thatched roof.
In the Zege peninsula, there are other monasteries such as Azwa Maryam, Mahil-Zegie Giorgis, Betre Maryam, and Yiganda Tekle Hayimanot. These monasteries on the peninsula are open for both men and women. The monasteries in the peninsula can be accessed either by boat or by road from Bahir Dar using private vehicles or public transport.
Tana Qirkos monastery
Tana Qirkos, one of the oldest monasteries in Ethiopia, is situated on the eastern shore of Lake Tana where one can observe life and rituals that have hardly been changed since the Old Testament. This monastery had been used as one of the four places of ancient Judaic worship where sacrificial stones are still found. The sacrificing stone testifies to the island’s importance as a Judaic religious shrine in Pre-Christian times. It is believed that the Ark of the Covenant had been kept there for 800 years. The founder of Ethiopian church music, St. Yared, wrote his first book of songs called Degua at this monastery. The museum collection of the monastery has preserved several valuable and unique treasures, which inspire visitors. The monastery is not open to women. It takes about three hours to drive by boat from Bahir Dar to reach there.
Monasteries on Deq Island
Deq is the largest island in Lake Tana. It is located 37 kilometers north of Bahir Dar and takes about 3 hours by boat.
Daga Estifanos lies on a small wedge-shaped island immediately east of the larger part of Dek Island. It takes about three hours boat sailing from Bahir Dar. Based on local sources, Daga was founded by Hiruta Amlak during the reign of Emperor Yekuno Amlak. The main point of interest at Daga Estifanos today is the mausoleum, which contains mummified remains of at least five Ethiopian medieval Emperors namely Yikuno Amlak, Dawit I, Zer’a Yakob, Susneyos and Emperor Fasilidas. The church symbolizes the biblical ark of Noah (Noah’s ship). Certainly, Daga Estifanos was a popular retreat for several of the above-mentioned kings and its tranquility was also favored by Tewodros II, who took communion there on several occasions. Several other treasures associated with these kings are stored in the mausoleum; old crowns, parchment manuscripts with some line drawing date back to the 14th century, and two immaculately preserved 15th-century paintings of Madonna with uncharacteristically detailed and non-stylized facial features.
Empress Mintewab founded the monastery in the 18th century Narga Sillassie is situated on the western shore of Dek island and takes three hours of sailing by boat from Bahir Dar. Its architectural style has resemblance to the buildings of Gonder. Narga is the most ornately decorated monastery. As with Ura Kidane Mihrte, the inner walls are covered from top to bottom with an amazing and absorbing collection of paintings dating back to the 18th century.