The monasteries scattered on the islands and peninsulas of Lake Tana in Ethiopia are shrouded in history. Most are accessible only by boat and date back centuries to medieval times.
Hidden in their treasuries for safety were old manuscripts and church objects, as well as the remains of ancient Ethiopian Emperors.
One such object alleged to have been stored there is the Ark of the Covenant. Ethiopia has a long history of Christianity and these monasteries play a very important part.
Lake Tana Monastery Tour
The monasteries are traditionally built in the old style and have three areas.
The inner sanctuary where only priests are allowed, and the inner and outer areas where worshippers gather. Inside are paintings and art dating back centuries, making for a colourful display.
With the smell of incense and the darkly lit interior one can be sent back to old mystical times.
These days the monasteries are still used for worship by the local people, but are naturally an interesting excursion for tourists.
The nearest city of Bahir Dar on the south of the lake is the staging post to rent boats to reach the islands.
You have the option to go just for a half day trip to visit around three or so monasteries, or a for a full day where more of the outer islands can be reached.
Although to see all the monasteries on Lake Tana you would need a few days at least. You will most likely see people using traditional boats out fishing or transporting goods while on the lake.
Upon arrival you will be greeted by locals selling traditional handicrafts, as well as other trinkets. They have makeshift wooden stalls lining the paths leading to the monasteries.
Thankfully they are not very pushy and will leave you alone if you say you are not interested. Some would say that this selling takes away some of the atmosphere.
But if you were from a poor village and had something like this in your backyard it is only natural to try and support your family with the selling of souvenirs. And the people are friendly and the children cheeky as always. At the monastery itself a guide will show you around, and you will most likely see a priest.
The guides are normally included in the price of a boat trip for a Lake Tana Monasteries tour, and are very useful to gain a proper insight into the history. They are often students taking a break from studies to work for a while and are very knowledgeable, most having come from the area.
They will explain all the different meanings of the intricate art adorning the walls inside. The art is mostly painted onto cloth, and most are very old and date back centuries. You could almost imagine secret treasures still buried inside the walls, hidden away waiting to be discovered.
For history lovers the monasteries are a must see in Ethiopia. But for others they are still definitely worth a visit to gain more understanding of Ethiopian culture.
Although some may become a bit bored after having seen a few of them as they can be very similar.
As well as the monasteries themselves there are some small museums. Museums being used in the loosest term, as most consist of a small locked room with some old artifacts and scriptures.
After being showed around its good to just sit for a while inside the outer area. Here you can enjoy some peace and contemplate one of the great treasures of Ethiopia, before heading back on the boat to busy Bahir Dar.
The price for a half day Lake Tana Monastery tour with a group should cost around 150 Ethiopian birr per person. If you are alone do not worry as you will most likely be put in with an existing group. There is no fixed rate for the tours so make sure to bargain for a good price.
Access to the monasteries themselves will cost extra, at 100 birr per monastery. A fast bus from Addis Ababa to Bahir Dar takes around 10 hours, or there are daily flights. If you come in rainy season wear good shoes, as it can be slippy and muddy on the paths.
The Blue Nile Falls can also be done on a day trip from Bahir Dar.
Have a read of my complete travel guide to Ethiopia.