Lake Tana Biosphere Reserve
A mesmerizing inland sea fringed by lush tropical vegetation, the 3,156 km² Lake Tana is most easily explored from Bahir Dar, a well-equipped port town that doubles as capital of Amhara Region. The source of the Blue Nile, Tana was known to the ancient Egyptians as Coloe, while the ancient Greeks extolled it as the ‘copper-tinted... jewel of Ethiopia’. Sites of interest include the lake's many picturesque island monasteries, most of which date to mediaeval times, and the stupendous Blue Nile Falls south of Bahir Dar. In June 2015, Lake Tana became the centrepiece of a 5,000 km² UNESCO biosphere reserve.
- The city of the hefty salt bars (amoles) that served as currency in the highlands for many centuries stands on a lushly wooded stretch of lakeshore teeming with birdlife. Its sprawling daily market is a fun place to explore, weaving between stalls that sell everything from traditional handicrafts to fresh tropical fruit. It also hosts several tourist-friendly traditional music venues.
- Bahir Dar's oldest architectural landmarks are the medieval church of Bahir Dar Giyorgis and an adjacent stone tower built for Emperor Susenyos in the 1620s.
- On the outskirts of Bahir Dar, the Amhara Martyrs’ Memorial and Museum displays a vast collection of photographs and other artefacts documenting the formation of the civil war against the Derg in the 1980s.
- At least 20 old monasteries stud the forested islands and peninsulas of Lake Tana. Many were established during the 14th century rule of Amda Tsion, but others, most notably Tana Chirkos, with its trio of ancient Judaic sacrificial pillars, might date back thousands of years.
- The most popular monastery with tourists, due to its proximity to Bahir Dar and tolerance of female visitors, is Ura Kidane Mihret. which contains some of Ethiopia's finest ecclesiastic artwork in Ethiopia and also has a superb museum. For adventurous seafarers, a full-day boat outing is required to visit the equally worthwhile but more remote likes of Daga Istafanos, Tana Chirkos or Narga Selassie.
- The 18th century Scottish traveller James Bruce described the Blue Nile Falls, known locally as Tis Isat (Water that Smokes), as: ‘a magnificent sight, that ages, added to the greatest length of human life, would not efface or eradicate from my memory’. It's a sensational spot, with the river kicking up a thunderous wall of spray as it crashes over a 45-metre high cliff before being channelled into a frothing gorge below.
- Tana supports a remarkable biodiversity. More than 20 fish species are endemic to the lake. Hippos are frequently seen within walking distance of Bahir Dar. Birdlife ranges from flotillas of great white pelicans, to colourful weavers and their neat little nests, to the African fish eagles that perform a haunting duet high in the trees. The conservationist ethos of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church means that many of the lake's monasteries double as virtual nature sanctuaries, protecting a range of forest birds and monkeys.
Bahir Dar lies 560km northwest of Addis Ababa and 175km south of Gondar along good surfaced roads. Ethiopian Airlines (www.ethiopianairlines.com) operates daily flights connecting Bahir Dar to Addis Ababa, Lalibela and Aksum. The airport is 5km west of the town centre and taxis are available there. There are no flights between Gondar and Bahir Dar, so most operators drive between the two. Trips can be organised using local tour operators based in the main towns.
Taxis and bajaji (tuc-tucs) are available to explore the town centre and environs.
Several local operators offer half-day trips to the Blue Nile Falls.
The best way to explore the lake monasteries is on a boat trip arranged through your hotel, the Lake Tana Tour Guide Association, or one of several operators in the Marine Authority compound.
Bahir Dar has one of the best selections of hotels in Ethiopia, including several upmarket lakeshore resorts and midrange high-rises.
Annual Events and Festivals
The main national Christian holidays are all celebrated vigorously in Bahir Dar. These are Ethiopian New Year (11 September), Meskel (Finding of the True Cross; 27 September), Gena (Ethiopian Christmas; 7 January) and Timkat (Epiphany; 19 January). Holidays fall one day later in leap years.
A row of craft stalls runs along the west side of Bahir Dar Giyorgis. The central market is also good for handicrafts. Bahir Dar is a good place to buy an agelgil, a unique type of goatskin ‘picnic basket’ used to carry food by well-to-do travellers.
Guide to Gondar and Lake Tana by Gian Paulo Chiari (2012), www.aradabooks.com - the most detailed site guide to Gondar and nearby historic sites in print.
Bradt Guide to Ethiopia by Philip Briggs (7th edition 2015), www.bradtguides.com - detailed background information and up-to-date hotel, restaurant and other listings.
Amhara Culture, Tourism and Parks Development Bureau - tel +251 (0) 220 1132, www.amharatours.org.et.
Lake Tana Tour Guide Association - tel +251 (0) 918 216609, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Lake Tana Biosphere Reserve - www.laketana-biosphere.com
- Bahir Dar is a lively modern city, with an attractive setting, adjacent to where the Blue Nile flows out from the southern shore of Lake Tana.
- Within park-like grounds on the east bank of the Nile, the Amhara Martyrs’ Memorial and Museum commemorate the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement’s liberation of Ethiopia from the Derg in 1991.
- Hippos and plentiful waterbirds are frequently seen from Bezawit Hill, a lovely viewpoint over the Nile topped by a palace built for Emperor Haile Selassie in 1967.
- Downstream from Lake Tana, the 45m-high Blue Nile Falls, also known as Tis Isat (Water that Smokes), rank among Africa’s most spectacular waterfalls in the rainy season.
- Dingay Debalo Maryam (literally ‘stone-clothed Mary’), reached via a rough track leading west from the Road to the Blue Nile Falls, is the closest rock-hewn church to Bahir Dar.
- Set on an island in the Nile outlet, Debre Maryam (Mount Mary) is the closest Lake Tana monastery to Bahir Dar. Its treasures include a 14th century illuminated manuscript.
- The 13th century monastery of Kibran Gebriel lies on a forested crescent island visible from the lake shore at Bahir Dar.
- Arguably the most beautiful church in the region, Ura Kidane Mihret has an accessible location on the forested Zege Peninsula, and is renowned for its lavishly painted interior and artefacts.
- It is said that the monastery Tana Chirkos housed the Ark of the Covenant for several centuries, a claim supported by the presence of three ancient Judaic sacrificial pillars.
- Easily visited in conjunction with nearby Tana Chirkos, Rema Medhane Alem has a treasure house storing several ancient paintings.
- Around 200 monks live on Daga Istafanos, a large monastery whose mausoleum contains the mummified remains of five Ethiopian emperors.
- Dek Island houses the Gondarine church of Narga Selassie, whose wealth of 18th-century paintings include the only contemporary portrait of its founder Empress Mentewab.
- Also set on Dek, the largest of the lake’s islands, Kota Maryam is a little visited church best known for its very ancient line portrait of the Virgin Mary and child.
- Gorgora, on the northern lakeshore, is home to Debre Sina Maryam, which preserves some lovely ancient paintings. A ruined 16th century castle lies 10km away at Old Gorgora.