Bahir Dar, gate to Lake Tana, magnificent monasteries and Blue Nile Falls
Located on Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, Bahir Dar is an Ethiopian town with wide avenues of palms and flowers.
Bahir Dar is located on the southern shores of the beautiful Lake Tana, great to use as a starting point for exploring the lake and the Blue Nile.
It is the regional capital of the Amhara National Regional State and can be easily reached by road from Addis Ababa. Bahir Dar means “by the sea” in Amharic.
The Ethiopian Christian monasteries which are found on some 20 of Lake Tana’s 37 islands and the Blue Nile Falls are the main attraction of Bahir Dar.
Island monasteries and hidden treasures
Twenty of the islands scattered on Lake Tana shelter small Ethiopian-Orthodox churches and monasteries of immense historical and cultural value.
They have a unique architectural style and have provided safe sanctuary for their beautiful mural paintings and a myriad of magnificent treasures including holy manuscript books and the robes and possessions of former kings dating as far back as the 13th century.
A special island is Tana Qirqos on the east of the lake, which is inhabited by monks. It is thought to be the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant around 400BC.
The monasteries of Lake Tana have remained hidden for centuries, guarding their treasures.
A short boat trip from Bahir Dar can gives visitors the chance to discover the hidden treasures of these remote and beautiful islands.
Monasteries on the islands
The monastery of Debre Maryam is one of the newer monasteries of Lake Tana, having been built by Emperor Tewodros in the 19th century.
A friendly priest welcomes all visitors and is happy to show you the ancient manuscripts stored there.
It can be accessed by boat and a short walk through coffee, mango and fig trees that line the path.
Adventurous travellers can rent a tankwa papyrus boat from local people, 20 minutes on the road towards Gondar, just before the Nile bridge.
Located on a hill around 100m above the lake, a short trek up a winding path brings you to one of the most sacred monasteries, the monastery of Dega Estefanos.
This monastery is of real historic interest, housing brightly coloured ceremonial robes, a 16th century painting of the Madonna and the mummified remains of five Ethiopian emperors, displayed for visitors to view in modern, glass-sided coffins.
Narga Selassie, which means ‘Trinity of the Rest’, was built on Dek Island, the largest island of Lake Tana in the late 18th century.
The church is one of the most peaceful and atmospheric on Lake Tana and is set in an extremely beautiful location.
Tana Cherkos is a small island monastery where it is said the Ark of the Covenant was hidden for 800 years before being brought to its final resting place in Aksum.
The shores of the island are covered with a dense forest strip which is home to majestic fish eagles. It takes around three hours to reach this monastery by boat from Bahir Dar.
Although it is described as one of the most beautiful monastery of Lake Tana, Kebran Gabriel is not opened to the public.
It was founded in the 14th century and rebuilt in the 17th century. It is located the closest to Bahir Dar.
The round roof is supported by twelve pillars made from carved stones symbolising the twelve apostles.
Monasteries on the Zege Peninsula
The rich forests on the Zege Peninsula are home to many medieval churches. The peninsula can easily be reached by boat from Bahir Dar.
Ura Kidane Mehret Monastery
Ura Kidane Mehret monastery is the most impressive and beautiful in the whole region.
Just a 25 minute walk from the boat landing point will take you to the monastery, winding through coffee plantations under tall shady trees.
The monastery is highly decorated with beautifully painted, colourful and vibrant frescoes depicting Ethiopian saints and the history of the Ethiopian-Orthodox Church.
Both men and women are permitted to enter and there is also a small museum, the Zeghie Satekela Museum, for visitors to learn about hand-crafted objects and musical instruments that are still used be the local communities today.
A short walk on a path through coffee and lemon trees leads you to the oldest monastery on the peninsula, the Bete Maryam monastery.
Attractive murals are sheltered behind stone columns here.
This round church has a thatched roof which makes it one of the most attractive churches around Lake Tana.
Step inside and watch its paintings come alive.
Bete Selassie & Tekla Haimanot
A 45 minute walk uphill from the shore takes you to these two hidden treasures.
These two monasteries are slightly off the beaten track, making a trip to see the vivid frescoes inside even more special.
Only men are permitted to enter the Bete Selassie monastery due to religious reasons.
Blue Nile Falls
The majestic Blue Nile Falls named Tis Issat in Amharic language which is translated as “Smoke of Fire” is found outside of Bahir Dar.
The flora and wildlife around the falls are unique, many species endemic only to that specific area and to Ethiopia.