Lake Tana is the largest lake in Ethiopia and it is also the source of the Blue Nile, a fact that may explain many of Ethiopia’s links with the ancient world. Even today the papyrus tankwa that sail the lake bare a striking resemblance to the boats of Ancient Egypt. The main tourist centre for the Tana area is Bahar Dar, which lies on the southern shore. The only other significant settlement is Gorgora, on the northern shore.
The Tana area is the traditional home of the Amhara, a Christian people. However Tana was also the homeland of the falashas who practised a form of Judaism that appears to have severed from the Jewish mainstream before 650BC. There are now few, if any, falasha people left in the Tana region: after centuries of persecution most of them were airlifted to Israel in 1991.
Between the collapse of the Zagwe Dynasty in the late 13th century and the establishment of Gondar as a permanent capital in the early 17th century, Tana was the political and spiritual focus of the Christian Empire. Several temporary capitals were established on or near its shores. Gorgora dates to this period, as do many of the island monasteries that dot Lake Tana. An exception is the monastery at Tana Chirkos, which appears to have been a spiritual retreat long before Christianity was established in Ethiopia.
How to get there
For information on how to get to Bahar Dar see the ‘Bahar Dar’ section.
Visiting the ‘island monastery’ (it is actually on a peninsula) of Ura Kidhane Mihret , possibly the most beautiful monastery anywhere in the Tana region, may be a little complicated. For several years foreigners have been forbidden to use the cheap ferry service between Bahar Dar and Zege – although do check the situation has not changed.
If not you have several options. You can visit the ‘island monastery’ by chartering the Marine Office’s ‘tourist boat’, which is the most expensive option. Instead you could take a trip with a couple of the private companies that are running them now, in which case prices are negotiable depending on group size and season. You could also visit Zege by road. It is impassable during the rainy season, but it’s fine between mid-October and June. You can hire a vehicle in Bahar Dar but it would be much cheaper to cycle there.
Unlike Zege the true island monasteries can genuinely be visited by special arrangement only. This means either chartering the Marine Authority’s ‘tourist boat’ or else making arrangements to use a private boat. Some private companies will arrange full-day trips. Be warned, however, that they may well take you to monasteries that women can’t enter, and they’re unlikely to divulge the information beforehand unless you specifically ask them.
Where to stay
See Bahar Dar.
If you do go to Zege, you may wish to spend the night there. The Yebiste Erko Hotel is a thoroughly decent dollar-a-night place, with basic but clean rooms and bucket showers. The restaurant serves tea, cold drinks, and basic meals like shiro wot and fried eggs.
Where to eat
There is reasonable western food at all the tourist-class hotels.
The Ghion Hotel has a good, varied menu in a pleasant setting. Main courses are around Birr 10. The Enkutatash Restaurant, which lies behind the telecommunications building, does a wide variety of food at decent prices. Try the fish cutlet! For good Ethiopian food try the Tana Restaurant, above the Tana Pastry and below the Tana Pension.
For pastry shops, Central Pastry, opposite the bus station, and Mugera Pastry, next to Ethiopian Airlines, are recommended.
What to see and do
The spectacular Tis Abay (Blue Nile Falls) should not be missed. Further information can be found in the Bahar Dar section.
There are several monasteries on Lake Tana’s islands.
The closest monastery to Bahar Dar is Kibran Gebriel, which lies on a tiny, lushly wooded crescent – presumably part of the rim of an extinct volcano.
The island monastery of Daga Istafanos is the most interesting of those within easy reach of Bahar Dar. Although the church itself is relatively new it houses a 15th century Madonna painting. The main point of interest is the mausoleum which contains the glass coffins that hold the mummified remains of five Ethiopian emperors, including King Fasiledes who founded Gondar as his capital.
One of the more remote and intriguing of Tana’s monasteries is Tana Chirkos, which lies on a densely-covered island near the eastern shore. Apparently the priests on Tana Chirkos have an ancient tradition that the Ark of the Covenant was kept here for 800 years before it was removed to Axum in the 4th century AD. As this monastery is so remote the round trip takes a full day.
Where to go from there
You can catch a weekly ferry to Gorgora (near Gondar). Gorgora is dominated by the leafy Marine Authority compound, which birdwatchers will find rewarding to explore.
Zege is a picturesque village where you could easily spend a few cheap and relaxed days rusticating and exploring the surrounding the area. Further information can be found in the Lake Tana section.
If you wish to travel further afield there are flights from Bahar Dar to Addis, Gondar, Lalibela and Axum.
A weekly ferry crosses between Lake Tana and Gorgora. This two-day journey, which involves an overnight stop in Konzula, provides a pleasant and somewhat romantic alternative to the inside of a bus. When you arrive in Konzula make it a priority to find a room as they will run out very quickly. You won’t get food or drink on the ferry so it is advisable to take some with you. In Gorgora the government-owned Gorgora Hotel, which lies on the shore of the lake, has spacious and attractive rooms with private showers and toilets. Rooms cost Birr 110/165 for a double/twin. The restaurant is excellent and affordable.
Source: Ethiopia: The Bradt Travel Guide – third edition by Philip Briggs http://www.bradt-travelguides.com