Lake Tana, Source of the Blue Nile

Lake Tana, Source of the Blue Nile
Bahr Dar, Ethiopia

Bahr Dar, Ethiopia

Leaving the big city, we flew north a few hundred miles into the highlands of Ethiopia, to Bahr Dar, on Lake Tana. Lake Tana is the biggest lake in the country and it is the source of the Blue Nile, which winds south and then west into Sudan, where it meets the White Nile in Khartoum.

After checking into our hotel we met our drivers and headed out to see the Blue Nile Falls. Our transportation for most of the rest of the trip will be four big V8 Toyota Land Cruisers, which can handle the mountain roads better than a bus. Here we meet 3 of our 4 drivers, Haile, Barry, and Jonas. Medi is the lead driver and our tour guide for the next few days is also called Haile.

We drove some dusty roads through small towns and farmers’ fields, and saw lots of exotic birds. This one is called a Red Checked Cordon-Bleu.

After crossing the river by boat, we strolled through the countryside on the way to the Falls.

While part of our group followed the trail down to the bottom of the falls, the rest of us sat down with the people who lived in the area. We learned that a remarkable number of Ethiopians speak English. They start learning it right away in school, and by 7th grade all their classes are taught in English.

We would see lots of children herding their family’s cows and goats. That is typically the job assigned to the younger children.

Next day we headed out onto the lake. Lake Tana has 37 islands, and 20 of them have monasteries. Haile and Lorna selected two representative islands to show us, to give us an idea of what the Ethiopian Orthodox churches are like out in the countryside.

This is a coffee growing region, because of its altitude and rich volcanic soil. Millions of years ago the whole highland area of northern Ethiopia was formed by volcanoes. That period was followed by an ice age which gave Ethiopia many years of incessant rains that carved the landscape we will be seeing in the coming days.

Ethiopian churches have several distinctive styles of crosses. The monasteries all have a cross on top of their church that is decorated with ostrich eggs, which are a symbol of strength. Ostriches don’t sit on their eggs, but watch them from a distance, so the ostrich eggs also symbolize God watching over the people. The number of eggs varies from place to place and has a symbolic meaning as well. This one has 7 eggs, which stands for the 7 sacraments of the church.

The beautiful paintings that cover the walls and doors of the churches are done in a style associated with Gonder, the capital of Ethiopia in the 17th century. The paintings illustrate stories from the Bible, as a way of teaching them to people who couldn’t read.

Here we were introduced to some of the repeated motifs and holy objects we would see in many other places we would visit. Each church has three parts, the outside where people chant and pray, the next inner room where Holy Communion is given, and the Holy of Holies where they keep a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, and only priests are allowed to enter.

Haile demonstrates the prayer staff, which has a top shaped like a ram’s head. People sometimes have to stand for many hours during the traditional service, so they lean on the staff. It also has ceremonial uses for the priests. We were privileged to have Haile as our guide in these churches, as he has studied and written a book about them, which he happily autographed for us.


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