After arriving in the scenic Bahir Dar, I sat by the shore of Lake Tana at a café and had some coffee to warm me up while waiting for my tour to start. In addition to its gorgeous scenery, Lake Tana has several island monasteries from the 15th and 16th centuries. The monks that live there today share oral histories of the islands and safeguard beautiful artefacts such as manuscripts and silver crosses.
I hopped on a boat with a group of Ethiopians for the tour. I was the only farenji (foreigner) on board but I was made to feel welcome. An inquisitive older man, an engineer, asked me where I was from and we got to talking. It turns out he lived in Nairobi for several years, so we compared our thoughts of the city as we enjoyed views of the lake.
At the first monastery, Entoto Iyasu, a monk told us that the original inhabitants of the island worshipped snakes before Orthodox Christianity arrived. We were then shown an old and enormous snake skin hanging on the wall. It turns out that a few hundred years ago, there was a big snake that kept eating the monk’s chickens so they added it to the wall decoration. It was then that I confirmed that there would be no messing around with any monks during my stay in Ethiopia. In the island’s church, we saw colourful paintings of various bible scenes dating back to the 15th century.
I was struck by the dedication of the monks to their faith, many of whom were seated quietly praying for extended periods of time, and with the gentle care with which the artefacts were protected. The following two monasteries, St. Gabriel and Debre Maryam, had similar paintings, as well as other interesting artefacts pictured below. In between, our boat driver took us out to the part of Lake Tana that meets the Blue Nile.
After lunch, I hired a tuk tuk driver to take me up to Haile Selassie’s Palace, at the top of a small mountain. Knowing I wouldn’t be able to go inside, I had some afternoon time to kill and wanted to get a nice view of Bahir Dar. Up top, I was able to see over the city and the lake. The palace itself wasn’t extraordinary.
As sunset approached, I walked by the lakeshore and had a beer outside at a place that I think was called Mango House. Dozens of Bahir Dar residents were seated facing the water as the sun went down. There was a charming carnival with a ferris wheel nearby that caught my attention too.
The next morning I took a minibus to Gonder, about 3 hours drive away. The vehicle was jam packed with people but the ticket was cheap and I still was able to joy the hilly scenery. After arriving at my hotel, the L-Shape, I found a guide, Yigza, to take me around the town (or rather, he found me). We travelled throughout the city by Tuk Tuk and I had a good time hearing about the town from someone who called Gonder his home.
Our first stop was Debre Berhan Selassie (“Mountain of Light”) a pretty 17th century church with impressive paintings. It was quiet when we arrived mid-morning, and Yigza had to ask a priest to open the doors for us as nobody was around. I was a bit mesmerized by the painting of angels covering the ceiling.
We then drove to Felasha Village, which is just outside Gonder. It used to be inhabited by hundreds of Ethiopian Jews. Some of their descendants still live there, and the community is well-known for their handicrafts. We visited the community’s small synagogue, and then explored some of the handicraft shops, some of which were run by a women’s cooperative. We admired the clay pots and carvings, fabrics, and jewelry, before heading back to town.
The highlight of the day came after lunch – a walk through Gonder’s 17th century royal enclosure, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As we expored the ruins, my guide gave an entertaining account of the antics of various Ethiopian kings in Gonder’s history, including Emperor Fasilidas, the city’s founder. Visitors can see the remaining structures of a concert hall, banquet hall, and lion cages.
A visit to the castles was followed by a short drive to Fasilidas’ Bath. The Bath hosts a special ceremony at Gonder’s annual Timket (Epiphany) celebration in early January. Although it was empty when I visited in
December, the pool is filled with water during Timket. After the water prayed over, dozens of young men jump into the pool to benefit from its blessing and commemorate the baptism of Jesus. Sounds like quite the pool party!
And so went my perfect day in Gonder! Now just one more stop before returning to Addis…