The thing I regretted most about my work in Ethiopia (give or take a bacterium or two) was that I didn’t have any time to properly explore the massive amount of architectural and arcahelogical goodies that are so thick on the ground in the north of the country. Sadly, in spite of my initial enthusiastic planning, fieldwork did not turn out to be a synonym for “six week holiday” and my architectural investigations were generally limited to attempts to determine the precise location of the leak in the ceiling of my hotel room. In desperation, I did manage to sneak away from a climate change conference in Bahir Dar to see what might be offered by the “Ethiopian Riviera” and neighbouring Lake Tana, and managed to be a tourist for a couple of days.
Lake Tana is vast – 84 km in length, slate-grey and full of pelicans and hippos, which have the most threatening ears of possibly any animal ever. Low forested islands dot the southern half of the lake, and these arewhere the interest lies, because there have been monasteries here for hundreds of years, and many islands still have dedicated populations of monks. It can be tricky to visit them, as they tend to be the rather specialised kind of monastery where the monks are suspicious even of hens and nanny goats, so actual women are right out, and those of us of a female persuasion have to wait in the boat a suitable distance away from the dock in case we accidentally prove a tempation or something. Fortunately one or two monasteries have let standards slip, so it was possible for me to see inside the churches.
The monasteries are hidden away on islands and peninsulas inside forests of lemon trees and coffee bushes. From the outside, the main churches don’t look especially prepossessing: round wooden huts with corrugated iron roofs, which while probably more waterproof than the thatch which was predominant until five years ago, are a great deal less picturesque. They are topped with elaborate metal crosses, decorated with ostrich eggs – one ostrich egg for each day of creation. Outside there are stone bells to call the monks to prayer, and inside a circular passage surrounding the inner sanctum, which only priests and deacons may enter. Here is the real draw of the Lake Tana churches: the astonishing paintings that decorate the walls of the inner sanctum. Many are over four hundred years old, and in astonishingly good condition. The paintings depict the life of Christ, as well as the miracles, deaths and general shenanigans associated with the enormous variety of saints within the Ethiopian Church.
As well as saints that are more familiar to western Christians (St. George in particular is massively popular over here), there are also some brilliant local guys. Abuna Aregawi, who decided that the top of a sheer cliff would be a good place to pray; God obligingly sent a large python to lift him up the cliff so he could found one of Ethiopia’s oldest churches. Taking a less obviously devout approach, Belai the Cannibal ate his way through 73 individuals before giving a beggar a cup of water, which promped the Virgin Mary to intercede on his behalf on judgement day. Indeed, Mary is very highly venerated in Ethiopia, and has been ever since the fifteenth-century king Zara Yaqob, who clearly did not do things by halves, became an enthusiast and ordered all his subjects to tattoo themselves with messages of devotion to her. She pops up all over the place in storoes and legends, and is a great peformer of miracles and very hardworking. Similarly, the Archangels Raphael and Michael here do a nice line in summoning up dragons to swallow any pesky soldiers that might be pursuing you, or vanquishing any enormous whales whose thrashing tails might be disturbing your prayers.
The paintings are all done on cotton cloth which has been stuck to the wall, which makes them quite susceptible to water damage, so it’s amazing that they’ve survivied as long as they have. What I loved about most about these paintings is the unique style which is so different from European religious art, and in particular, the wonderfully lifelike expressions. For example, St. Sebastian is usually depicted in Western art as wearing an expression of transcendent bliss which I always considered to be slightly at odds with the manner of his demise, since being shot full of arrows seems scarcely a comfortable way to go. The St. Sebastian on the sanctum walls of Ura Kidane, however, was clearly not having a good day and was not afraid to let you know about it. Similarly, St. Francis of Assisi, while no doubt an extremely holy man and an excellent example to humanity, was also probably also deeply hard work to keep a conversation up with, and his depiction rather suggested this. And, as is always the case, the artists seemed to be having a great deal more fun with the devils, dragons and other less-than-entirely-holy creatures (there are more photos of various saints, devils and monsters here).
Lake Tana is also the outlet of the Blue Nile: the silt which fertilises Egyptian river banks is washed from the Ethiopian highlands, a fact that causes no little muttering during soil erosion discussions (you’d be amazed at how often this comes up). Several dozen kilometres south of the lake, the proto-Nile suddenly widens out and drops into Tis Abay, the Blue Nile Falls. These were once a natural landmark that rivalled the Victoria Falls in size and spectacle, and for years were one of the biggest tourist attractions in Ethiopia . This being the case, the decision of the Ethiopian government a few years ago to site two large hydroelectric plants directly above the falls, cutting off the majority of the water supply and diminishing the falls practically to a trickle, seems quixotic in the extreme. In spite of this, it is still rather difficult to avoid being scooped up by a tourist bus in Bahir Dar and deposited at the Tis Abay ticket office so that you can dutifully admire where the falls were and agree with the guide that no doubt the sight would be amazing if there was actually any water. I’m not sure if what remains is still the second largest waterfall in Africa (it might be, height-wise), but the depleted falls are brown, barely more than a trickle, and definitely unimpressive. Although it’s still (at least according to every travel angency in Bahir Dar) a must-see, it’s a shame that the government was so short-sighted, and the suggestion which keeps being mooted of switching the falls “on” a couple of times a week doesn’t entirely appeal (debating the authenticity of a waterfall seems daft, but one that can be switched on and off is not terribly satisfying).
Well, that’s enough dissertation procrastination for today. Cup of tea time, methinks – although this post is really making me miss the Ethiopian coffee.