Lake Tana is not only interesting for its natural beauties: its more than twenty islands were also the spiritual retirement of orthodox monks. Between XVI and XVII centuries many monasteries and churches were built in Lake Tana. The oldest of these forty or so churches have their origins in the XIVth century. They reflect the native building tradition in their round shape, materials and building techniques. Simple architectures without any interest but covered with wonderful paintings with religious scenes, being these murals the highlight of a boat trip on Lake Tana.
Although one could spend days and days visiting churches I think (and I almost don’t believe what I am going to say) that after visiting two or three, all of them will look to you the same. So if your time in Ethiopia is tight, a half a day /one day trip will be more than enough.
I booked a half day trip in Ghion Hotel the day before. It included the visit of Debre Maryam, Intos Exesus Maryam, Kebran Gebriel (men only), Azuwa Maryam, Ura Kidane Meret + the Nile outlets. It was a very complete tour but after seeing three churches we said to our boatman that it was enough.
Tana Churches hide inside ancient paintings created with a style that came from Byzantium and has not changed since then. Designs remind the parishioners the truth of their faith. The colour is as important as the shape having both the purpose to catch the observer’s mind and spirit. Topics are always the same: the Virgin (much venerated in Ethiopia), the Trinity, the saints’ life and Saint George killing the dragon.
One can spend hours and hours admiring these paintings, walls are a kind of comic strip telling you lots of stories. In fact it was the only way for illiterate people to know about the Holy Scriptures. If you like photography don’t forget to bring your tripod as the light is faint. If it happens to you to visit the churches during a power failure, which IS NOT very rare, then there is not hope for good pictures 🙁
Ura Kidane Mehrat, founded by Empress Mentewwab in 1747 on Zegue Peninsula, is the most famous (and visited) church and also my favourite one in Lake Tana. Inside, it is decorated with beautiful paintings which show the life of Christ, Mary and different saints. But they also show you the consequences of being a bad guy. Especially beautiful are the equestrian saints being this picture one of the most represented images about Ethiopia. If you enlarge the main picture, you will see two kinds of design for people: good people (saints, etc) have round face with almond eyes and serene expressions; bad people have long face with ugly expressions and almost all the times are seen from the side (a profile nose and only one eye).
But common people could also appear on the paintings: a small donation for the Church and they could have their face represented on the walls for the eternity (picture below).
Useful Information :
Note that “the half day trip” means the “transportation by boat to the different islands”. Once you step onto them, you will have to pay an admission ticket to visit the different churches (50 Birr each).
Don’t forget to carry your head torch for visiting temples and churches: power failures are very common in Ethiopia.