This photo shows the boat that we went in across Lake Tana to the Zege Peninsula


Our boat to the monasteries

On our first morning in Bahir Dar, we walked, with our guide, Mas, down to the shores of Lake Tana and took a boat to visit the Zege Peninsula 15km away.  When we disembarked we passed a gamut of souvenir sellers as we made our way through coffee and citrus trees to the first church we were to visit, Bete Maryam.

Coffee beans growing


One of the sellers


Bete Maryam Church

Dating from the 13th century, this is the oldest monastery on the peninsula.  The church that stands on the site now was built around 1430.  Most of the original murals, which were painted directly onto the walls, were replaced in the 1700s with new ones which were done first on canvas and then mounted on the walls.  These murals are striking in their vibrancy.  It’s hard to believe that all of the wonderful colours were derived from vegetation found locally – fruit, seeds, vegetables and flowers.  The paintings portray the life, wit and humanity of Ethiopian art at its best and provide an encyclopaedia of Ethiopian orthodox religion and local lore.  Mas explained what we were seeing in great detail.  The images were given life by his excellent narrative and we all recognised the more famous stories from the bible.  We were taken by his description of a particularly unhappy looking Mary as she was told the news of Jesus’s death.  Mas’s accent and choice of words as he pointed to the image of ‘Santi Mary sad face’ gave us a catch phrase which made us smile for the rest of our trip!

A priest at Bete Maryam


The Day of Judgement


Santi Mary Sad Face!

From Bete Maryam, we walked through a coffee plantation and past a religious school, where we could hear novice monks, priests and deacons chanting.  Apparently, they stay there for seven years reciting holy verses for eight hours each day before they are deemed ready to be ordained.  The second church we visited was Azuwa Maryam.  Outside, there was a girl sieving stone by hand to create the fine powder needed to make cement.  She was being watched over by a man whose only role appeared to be to make sure she didn’t stop! 

Azewa Maryam Church


Girl sieving stone


St. George and the dragon


Azuwa Maryam was very similar in style to Bete Maryam, although the paintings here were not as impressive.  Even so, Mas did a great job of explaining their meaning and making us notice things which would have passed us by had he not been there.  One of the paintings clearly showed a game of hockey, prompting one of our party to ask, ‘Did Jesus play hockey?’, to which the answer was a resounding ‘Yes’, in a tone that suggested we should have known this obvious fact about the son of God!!  The depiction of St George slaying the dragon, which we saw over and over as we travelled around Ethiopia, was particularly fine, too.
From the second church, we made our way back to the shore, passing more souvenir sellers on the way.  Before boarding our boat for the return journey to Bahir Dar, we had coffee made in the traditional way – something we were to enjoy many more times on our trip!


Enjoying coffee


Our guide, Mas


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