Tana is not only Ethiopia’s largest lake but a site of immeasurable historical significance. It was well known to the ancients: the Pharaonic Egyptians referred to the lake as Coloe, while their Greek counterparts knew it as Pseboe, “the copper-tinted jewel of Ethiopia”. This is largely due to Tana being the source of the Blue Nile, which follows an arcing 800km course through Ethiopia after exiting the lake, then crosses into Sudan, merging with the White Nile at Khartoum before eventually emptying into the Mediterranean east of Alexandria. Many scholars believe the Blue Nile to be synonymous with the Old Testament Gihon, which flowed out of the legendary Garden of Eden “encircling the entire land of Cush”, a name associated with Ethiopia elsewhere in the Bible.
Tana’s links with the ancient Mediterranean world are evident. For example, the traditional tankwa – flimsy-looking papyrus canoes – still used to cross the lake bear a striking resemblance to a type of boat depicted in ancient Egyptian art. Moreover, the lake hinterland is the traditional homeland of the Beta Israel, who speak the same language as their Amhara neighbours, and are ethnically identical, but differ insofar as they practise a form of Judaism that severed from the Jewish mainstream circa 650 BC, suggesting their ancestors migrated to Ethiopia along the Blue Nile in pre-Christian times. More recently, probably in the late thirteenth century, Tana took over from Lalibela as the main political stronghold of the Christian empire. Between then and the foundation of Gondar in 1635, the lakeshore housed several temporary imperial capitals, many of which were described by early European visitors such as Christopher da Gama, Pedro Páez and Pêro da Covilhã.
Many of the monasteries dotted around Tana’s islands contain intriguing relics of times past. And the significance of Tana as the source of the Nile is evidently not lost on Ethiopians. Indeed, Abay Minch (literally “Nile Spring”), the source of the Gilgil Abay (“Calf Nile”) – the longest river to flow into Lake Tana, and thus the ultimate source of the Blue Nile – ranks among the holiest sites anywhere in Ethiopia, protected in the grounds of the remote Gish Mikael Monastery, near Injibara on the road back to Addis Ababa.