Lake Tana, Gondar and the Simien Mountains Travel Guide

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Situated in the heart of the historic Amhara Region, around 400km northwest of Addis Ababa as the crow flies, Lake Tana, its azure waters fringed by lush tropical vegetation, is – at 3673 square kilometres – Ethiopia’s largest body of water, and the principal source of the Blue Nile. Serviced by the attractive lakeshore port of Bahir Dar, which also doubles as the regional capital, the lake is also an important tourist hub, thanks to its rich birdlife, wealth of historic island monasteries, and proximity to the Blue Nile Falls, which rank among the most spectacular in Africa when in full flow.

Shaped like an inverted teardrop, shallow Tana is relatively low-lying by Ethiopian standards, with a surface elevation of 1800m, but the lake’s hinterland is enclosed by craggily scenic mountain landscapes typical of the Abyssinian Highlands. Straddling the hills to the north of Lake Tana is the historic city of Gondar, studded with relics of its heyday as imperial capital in the seventeenth century. Further north still, the wild, hiker-friendly Simien Mountains National Park protects the country’s highest and most spectacular mountain range, along with a range of endemic wildlife including gelada monkey and Walia ibex.

Top image © Radek Borovka/Shutterstock

Bahir Dar and around

With its palm-lined avenues and lush setting on the southern shore of Lake Tana, BAHIR DAR is one of the most attractive towns in northern Ethiopia. It’s also the most practical base from which to explore the many historic monasteries of Lake Tana, and boasts some of the best tourist facilities in the region. A modern port with a population of more than 300,000, Bahir Dar has grown significantly in stature since it was selected as capital of the Federal Region of Amhara in 1995. The main local tourist attraction nearby is the spectacular 45-metre high Blue Nile Falls.

Blue Nile Bridge and Bezawit Hill

Crossing the river barely 1km downstream of where it flows out of Lake Tana, the Blue Nile Bridge was inaugurated by Emperor Haile Selassie in 1961. Architecturally unremarkable, the bridge is a good place to look for hippos, crocodiles and waterbirds. There’s often a police presence here, so it’s best to ask permission before pulling out a camera.

Energetic travellers could continue across the bridge then take the first right turn and follow it for about 2.5km to the top of Bezawit Hill. Entrance to the hilltop palace built here for Haile Selassie is forbidden, but the views over the town and lake are well worth the effort.

Blue Nile Falls

Some 25km southeast of Bahir Dar as the crow flies, the 400m-wide Blue Nile Falls – known locally as Tis Isat (“Smoking Water”) – are one of Ethiopia’s most compelling natural phenomena. Described by Scottish explorer James Bruce as “a magnificent sight, that ages, added to the greatest length of human life, would not efface or eradicate from my memory”, the falls consist of four separate streams that plunge up to 45m over a formation of solidified lava. Unfortunately, Ethiopia’s most famous waterfall has become a rather capricious phenomenon in recent years, thanks to the opening of a hydroelectric plant through which much of the river’s water is frequently diverted: at times the cascade is reduced to a mere trickle, though between late July and early October – the height of the rainy season – the falls remains reliably spectacular. Even when the water is low, however, the hike to the falls makes for a pleasant excursion, and can be particularly rewarding for birdwatchers.

Many people visit the waterfall as an organized day excursion from Bahir Dar, though it’s also very easy to visit independently, via the village of Tis Abay (“Smoke of the Nile”), which is connected to Bahir Dar by bus.

Hiking to the falls

There are two footpaths from Tis Abay to the waterfall. The longer one, just over 2km long, skirts past the hydroelectric plant, crosses the gorge below the falls on a seventeenth-century stone-and-lime bridge built by the Portuguese and then turns back for a series of commanding viewpoints facing the main drop. The riverine woodland here hosts several striking birds, including the blue-breasted bee-eater, white-cheeked turaco and yellow-fronted parrot.

The easier walk entails crossing the Nile above the falls by motorboat, then following a flat footpath for 500m to a viewpoint west of the main cataract. You may want to use one route in and the other out: a Swiss-constructed suspension bridge across the west side of the gorge connects the two to form a walking circuit that takes roughly an hour.

Gondar

Capital of Ethiopia for more than two centuries prior to the foundation of Addis Ababa, the city of GONDAR lies at a temperate elevation of around 2200m in the fertile hills that separate Lake Tana from the loftier Simien Mountains. Significantly larger than either Aksum or Lalibela, it is often referred to as the “Camelot of Africa”, thanks to the impressive collection of European and Indian-influenced stone castles built by Emperor Fasil (reigned 1632–67) and his successors. The central Fasil Ghebbi, or Royal Enclosure, which includes six such castles, is the city’s main focal point, but other important sites include the beautifully painted suburban church of Debre Birhan Selassie and the more remote, haunting Kuskuam complex, founded by the Empress Mentewab in 1730.

Well equipped with hotels, restaurants and bars, Gondar’s compact and pedestrian-friendly centre, known as the Piazza, is a pleasant place to chill out between bus journeys. The city is also the usual springboard for hikes into Simien Mountains National Park, 120km to the north.

Brief history

Gondar emerged as the imperial capital in the wake of a protracted period of upheaval in the Lake Tana basin. During the sixteenth century, its hinterland had staged a series of brutal conflicts between the Christian empire and an Islamic army led by Ahmed Gragn and his successors. This was followed in the 1620s by a religious purge led by Emperor Susenyos, whose conversion to Catholicism (influenced by the self-same Portuguese Jesuits that supported the imperial cause against Gragn) left the ruler at odds with his predominantly Orthodox subjects.

In 1632, the unpopular Susenyos abdicated in favour of his son Fasil (or Fasilidas), who restored stability by evicting the Jesuits from his empire, and established a fixed capital at the village of Gondar three years later. Fasil selected Gondar for its strategic hilltop location, but may also have been influenced by an ancient tradition stating that the next permanent imperial capital would have an initial G. The three-storey castle he built here is the most impressive structure of its type in Ethiopia, while the market, located at the crossroads of three caravan routes, formed the focal point around which Gondar would mushroom into a city of 60,000 by the mid-1660s.

Gondar remained the centre of imperial affairs under Fasil’s immediate successors Yohannis I (reigned 1667–82) and the popular Iyasu I (reigned 1682–1706). Iyasu was ousted in 1706, sparking a fifteen-year period of Catholic–Orthodox tensions during which four kings were crowned and assassinated. Stability was restored under Emperor Bakaffa (reigned 1721–30), whose son, Iyasu II (reigned 1730–55), ascended the throne under the regency of his powerful mother, the Empress Mentewab. However, Mentewab’s suspected Catholic leanings led to a renewal in religious tensions and the eventual dissipation of centralized Gondarine rule to various regional fiefdoms in the 1770s, and the town was dealt a further blow when it was sacked by the Sudanese Mahdists in 1888 and many of its finest churches were destroyed. Gondar enjoyed a revival during the Italian occupation, as evidenced by much of the architecture around the Piazza, since which it has grown to become one of Ethiopia’s largest cities, with a population of at least 300,000.

Debre Birhan Selassie

The most important of 44 venerable Gondarine churches, Debre Birhan Selassie (“Mountain of the Enlightened Trinity”) was also the only one to escape the Mahdist invasion of 1888 totally unscathed, thanks (legend has it) to the timely intervention of an angry swarm of bees. An imposing rectangular stone building, it was founded in the 1690s by Iyasu I, who reputedly intended to relocate the Ark of the Covenant here, and thus built it to the same dimensions as Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Although the church is of considerable interest to scholars of Aksumite architecture, it is best known for the prolific eighteenth-century paintings that adorn every corner of the (surprisingly compact) interior. Several rows of angelic faces gaze down cherubically from the ceiling, while the walls incorporate a miscellany of panels celebrating the life of Christ, the eccentricities of various saints, and the gruesome deaths met by early Christian martyrs.

Lake Tana churches and monasteries

The remote islands and forested peninsulas of Lake Tana are home to some of Ethiopia’s most venerated monastic churches. The antiquity of these monasteries is difficult to ascertain, but most probably date to the thirteenth and fourteenth century, and some may be a lot older, with Tana Kirkos in particular likely to have started life as a Judaic temple in Aksumite times. The Lake Tana monasteries are generally of limited architectural interest, certainly by comparison to the rock-hewn churches of Tigrai or Lalibela, but some host superb examples of Ethiopia’s ecclesiastical art, and many also have treasuries filled with ancient books and other artefacts. The lake itself also plays host to plenty of birds, ranging from stately pelicans and herons to vociferous fish eagles and darting kingfishers.

Lake Tana in history

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.

Tana Kirkos

Tana Kirkos, set on the island of Tana 35km north of Bahir Dar near the lake’s eastern shore, has the most ancient pedigree of the island monasteries. The church itself was possibly founded as early as the fourth century, probably on the site of an older Jewish temple. A rather improbable tradition states that it was at Tana Kirkos that the Ark of the Covenant was stowed for eight centuries prior to being transferred to Aksum by King Ezana. The church itself is of no architectural interest but the island does contain a unique group of hollowed-out Judaic sacrificial pillars which go a long way to supporting its claim to a pre-Christian origin. Please note that the monastery is not open to women.

Zege Peninsula

Relatively accessible by public transport, the lush Zege Peninsula is home to the most popular destination on Tana, the lavishly painted Ura Kidane Mihret, though there are other interesting churches, including the disused Mehal Giyorgis and Bet Maryam, and the exuberantly decorated Azuwa Maryam. The forest that swathes the peninsula is also worth exploring, and alive with colourful birds, butterflies and monkeys. Most people visit as a day-trip, but there are a few very basic lodges in Afaf village, at the west end of the peninsula.

Ura Kidane Mihret

Some 10km northwest of Bahir Dar as the crow flies, Ura Kidane Mihret is arguably the most beautiful church in the Tana region. The monastery dates back to the fourteenth century, though the circular church was built in the sixteenth. Its inner walls are covered from top to bottom with hundreds of restored paintings that vividly depict every face of Ethiopian ecclesiastical life, from saints in torment and bloody battle scenes to devils and dragon-slayers. Look out too for the fainter line drawings on one of the doors, and be sure to take a turn round the museum, with its collection of ancient imperial crowns, religious tomes and other treasures.

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Andy Turner
10/16/2020
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