Lake Tana

History - legends - Attractions

lake Tana Attractions

Rivaling the attraction of the Blue Nile Falls are the Lake Tana, of Ethiopia’s largest body of water and the third in size in Africa next to lake Victoria and Tanganyika .There are more than 30 islands in the Lake Tana. Some twenty of these islands shelter churches and monasteries of significant historical and cultural interest dating back to 14th and 17th century. They are decorated with beautiful paintings and are the repository of innumerable treasures.

Lake Tana, is located in a depression of the northwest plateau, 6,000 feet (1,800 meters) above sea level. It forms the main reservoir for the Blue Nile (Abbay) River, which drains its southern extremity near Bahir Dar. The lake's surface covers 1,418 square miles (3,673 square km), with a surrounding drainage of 4,500 square miles (11,650 square km); its maximum depth is 45 feet (14 meters).

Lake Tana & Ancient Ethiopian Empires

The area around Lake Tana has a rich history that stretches back over many centuries, through ancient empires and dynasties. History, legends and beliefs passed down over the years form an important part of the Ethiopian’ identity and continue to shape the culture today.

Lake Tana has been the political and spiritual centre of the Ethiopian Christian faith for many centuries. References to the Blue Nile can be found in the Old Testament of the Bible as the River Gihon, which “flows around the whole land of Cush” (as Ethiopia was known to the Hebrews).

Between the 14th and 17th century the lake played an important part in the rise of the Solomonic dynasty and the Christian Abyssinian Empire. Legend has it that the Queen of Sheba travelled to Jerusalem to visit King Solomon. She returned to her kingdom in Ethiopia and gave birth to a son who became Emperor Menelik I. When he was 22, Menelik visited his father in Jerusalem and on his return brought the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia. Throughout the following 3,000 year-long ‘Solomonic Dynasty’, emperors built many churches and monasteries, including hose found on the islands and shores of Lake Tana. The crown jewels, and treasures, as well as ancient manuscripts of the Ethiopian church have been hidden away on the islands, including, according to legend, the Ark of Covenant itself.

Portuguese Jesuit missionaries came to the area around Lake Tana in the 16th and 17th century with the intention of converting the Ethiopians to Roman Catholicism. Their influence can still be seen in several buildings hat were erected along the shore of the lake during that time, including Guzara Castle, the Portuguese Cathedral and the Palace of Susneyos found in Gorgora. Ethiopia’s first stone bridge, Agam Dildi, was built by the Portuguese at the command of Emperor Susneyos in 1626.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Lake Tana became an important trading hub, with travellers coming from far and wide to visit the famous market in Bahir Dar and trade luxurious goods. Ethiopia has had several temporary capital cities since the late 13th century, but in an attempt to unite church and state Emperor Fasilides founded Gondar, a city just north of Lake Tana, and named it as the permanent capital of Ethiopia in 1636, which it would remain for the following 200 prosperous years.

Remains of ancient Ethiopian emperors and treasures of the Ethiopian Church are kept in the isolated island monasteries. The monasteries are earlier religious sites and include the fourteenth century Debre Maryam, the eighteenth century Narga Selassie. Tana Qirqos Island have been a spiritual retreat long before Christianity was established in Ethiopia, Tana Qirqos once housed the Ark of the Covenant for 800 years, before it was moved to Axum. All of the islands churches are decorated with beautiful sacral paintings and are the main tourist attractions on the Lake.

A boat trip on Lake Tana is one of the most pleasant excursions, hiring a boat is pretty straightforward at the lakeside town of Bahir Dar, the islands and peninsulas of the lake are most conveniently approached by boats. A weekly Sundays Lake Tana Ferry crosses between Bahir Dar to Gorgora, two day journey which involves an overnight stop in Konzula, a pleasant alternative to the bus trip.

Tana lakeshore make an ideal place for Bird Watcher's, the whole of the Lake Tana region and the Blue Nile gorge host a wide variety of birds; endemic and migratory. The variety of habitats, from rocky crags to riverside forests and important wetlands, ensure that many other different species could be spotted here. Bird lovers should make a trip to Fasilides Island, at the eastern side of the lake, Fasilides Island is the breeding point for a number of wetland species, a Bird Watcher's paradise.

A long boat ride away from town of Bahir Dar is the Medieval island monastery of Kibran Gabrael, like many monasteries it's off-limits to women. The most interesting island monastery of those within reach from town of Bahir Dar is of Daga Istafanos, the church it houses a 15th century Madonna painting. The main point is the mausoleum which contains the glass coffins that hold the mummified remains of five Ethiopian emperors, including King Fasilides founder of the Gondar Castle.

The Kibran Gabrael monastery has famous library of medieval manuscripts, the level of artistry in the books is equal to any of the great works of medieval France or Italy, yet completely different in style. The librarian opens up book after book of sturdy goatskin, showing richly colored paintings of Bible scenes. Each of the Gospels has its own book, and there's a New and Old Testament that weighs in at 17 kg / 38 pounds, the library has impressive selection of icons.

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