From Bahar Dar one must explore some of the ancient monasteries that have been built around Lake Tana, or on the many Islands. Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake situated on the northern side of Bahir Dar, on an area of about 3600 square KM, houses about more than 30 islands, some 20 of which do have ancient monasteries dating back to the 13th c, and still inhabited today.
The area around lake Tana in those days was inhabited by non Christian Agews and black Jews. Taking this in to account, this churches and monasteries of lake Tana, were built to function as a springboard for the process of evangelization. This is an assumption hypothesized by different people. Their placement on the islands rather than on the surrounding areas of Tana might also be due to the tradition of Ethiopian orthodox church that most churches and monasteries are constructed inaccessible places.
These include Daga Stephanos with its priceless collections of icons, as well as the remains of several medieval emperors, Kebran Gabriel and Ura Kidane Mehret with its famous frescoes, Tana Cherkos with its traditional narrations.
This church can be reached by motor boat in twenty minutes ride to the east of new Gorgora. It lies on a small island of the same name. it was first built by AmdeTsion(1314-44) but burned down and rebuilt three times. One painting of Mary, probably from the 16th c. is preserved there. It is a lovely pictures satisfying to the high skill of Ethiopian painters of that period. It was only this pictured which was saved when the church burnt down.
About a one and a half motor boat trip east of new Gorgora lie the ruins of the castle of emperor Susenyos, built the Portuguese Jesuits father pays, who lived in Ethiopia from 1603 -21 it was formerly a castle and cathedral. The entire castle and cathedral complex lies on the crest of peninsula reaching far in to the lake and forming a bay. Occasionally Hippos can be watched from a distance, where a dense papyrus grows in the bay.
This island rises with its perfect cone in the centre of the lake. It is one of the most important of the islands ever since the older times, a monastery was located here, the island is considered sacred and cannot be trodden up on by any female creatures, human or animal. The church of daga Istephanos is a rectangular building similar to the Debre Birhan church in Gondar.
The present building is modern and was constructed after the reign of emperor Yohanes the fourth(1868-1889) it has modern wall paintings and a fragment of an old painting(16th c) on the outer of northern wall. In a special building near the church the bodies of several of Ethiopian emperor preserved. Among these, Yokuno Amlak(1268-83), Dawit First(1382-1411), Zarah Yacob(1434 -68), Za Dengil(1603 -04)and Fassil(1632-67) dead remains are kept here well in a way to be seen vividly and neatly.
Cheeseman writes in his book, we climbed up a well polished tree branch that serves as a ladder and saw on the mummified body of emperor fassil, his head was covered by a cloth, which when removed, disclosed the face with a fine looking man with refined features, thin nose and lips” the sword of the emperor is also shown. Beside the mummy of fassil lies the skeleton of a child said to be his son, who was crowned when his father died but during the ceremonies collapsed under the great weight of the crown.
Very near to Daga Istephanos is Dek a flat and rather large island which can be visited by women.
On the western shore of Dek and connected with it only during the dry season is Sellasie church of Narga, this large round church was built under the reign of Empress mentwab(1730-55) and a charming portrait of the regent is shown under the picture of saint mary. There are many well preserved wall paintings. The church was repaired in 1956.
Other churches in island of Dek are the Arsima church which owned one of the oldest and most beautiful manuscripts of the Ethiopian middle age yet discovered(reproduced in the Unesco album) the Gola Maryam church and Daga Yohaness church.
This island lies on the eastern shore of Lake Tana, across Dek and Daga Istephanos. It is a peninsula during the dry season. During the rainy season it id cut off from the shore. This semi-islands is considered holy ground and cannot be visited by females. Tradition tells us that St. Mary rested here under a wall during her flight to Egypt and stayed for three months and ten days. The monks claim that they owned a necklace which she left when she departed. It is also said that the island was a sacred place of the Jesus. Minlik the first and the Jewish Nobles after fleeing from Solmon, brought the ark of the covenant to this island and built a temple over it, which was decorated with whalebone and precious stones six hundred years later the ark was brought to Axum. The grandson of the high priest of Solmon’s temple in Jerusalem, zaduk, is supposed to lie buried here. Three large stones are shown which are proclaimed as sacrificial stone of the Jewish rites. The hollows for catching the blood of the victims are shown too!
On his travels through the country, preaching and converting the population, frumentios finally arrived at Tana Cherkos, died and buried here after planting iron prayer sticked topped with a cross. Later on, a Christian church was erected by Abreha and Atsbeha, two legendary axumite kings of the 4th c. the present church was rebuilt in the time of Ras Gugsa, during the time of Emperor Minlik the second of the 20th c. the church owns two interesting folding books of the 15th c. the larger about 75cm. high and 16cm width.
From my own experience I tended to side the tradition says that it is here where St. Mary landed for more than three months. While I was there once, I had got the exposure of the foot prints of the either the horse or donkey on a rock that St. Mary and Christ rode on.
Kebran and Entos
Continuing the southern end of the heart shaped lake, the Island of Kibran and Entos are approached on Entos there used to be a nunnery though its church is now abandoned. Some of the book and paintings now preserved in kibran originated from Entos. The Gabriel church of Kibran was built during the reign of Amdetsyon, and reconstructed by Dawit the second and Adyam sagad Iyasu. Twelve dark red stone pillars symbolizing the apostles surround the central holly of hollies. There are cloth paintings, skillfully done, especially very touching is the picture of the mourning of Christ of body. Kebran owns many Manuscripts, some of which have been reproduced in the UNESCO album. Many of the manuscripts originate from other churches which brought them therefore safe keeping during the muslim invasion of the 16th c.
Is another church situated on the south east corner of the lake, near the mouth of the outlet of the Blue Nile which was built during the reign of Amdetsyon but now in poor condition. A legend tells that when Abune Estatteaos, the founder first went to the island, the water divided and let him pass on foot. It contains one of the oldest Illuminated manuscripts, the Gospel with four outstanding paintings of the evangelists writing the gospel.
Another church on the Zagie Peninsula is Ura kidanemihret with one hour cruising time of Bahir Dar. Constructed by Amdetsyon but rebuilt by Dawit the second and Iyasu Adyam Sagad. It has paintings similar to Gonderine style. Women visitors are allowed and the monks are more open and communicative the church design at Ura Kidanemihret is similar to that at kebran Gabriel and indeed dates from the same period. It is more decorative building however arched over with a huge conical thatched roof and superbly painted inside and out with colorful frescoes depicting scenes from biblical lore and from the history of the Ethiopian church.
Ura Kidanemihret has a large treasury containing ancient beautiful illuminated bibles written in GEEZ from which ethiopia’s modern Amharic language is derived many other texts and records are also stored here, bearing witness to the observation that the orthodox church through the ages has been one of the prime sources and repositories of written Ethiopian history.
There are also crowns rendered by different emperors namely tewodros, Yohaness, tekleHaimanot of Gojjam and Tekle Girogis. What is more Amdetsyon offered a big cross made from metal and is clearly seen at ura-kidanemihret. There is also over coat of Emperor Iyasu Adyam Sagad. So this church is a site rich in different treasures and is worthy Visiting.