My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Lake Tana's Monastic Churches

scenery on the way to Gorgora
Monday morning at our fabulous Mayleko Lodge hotel and I am again woken by chanting from worshippers making their way to the church on the top of the hill. But this time at 3am! I do not mind. It is for me a satisfyingly spiritual experience. The sound is soon to be joined by an orchestration of bird song better than any dawn chorus I have ever heard at home even in the deepest Kent countryside. I lie for quite a while enjoying the music before drifting off to sleep again.

on way to Gorgora
Today our coach takes us down to the Gorgora peninsular on the North shore of Lake Tana to pick up a boat to take us across the lake to Bahir Dar. It will then double back to the hotel and pick up all our bags for the four hour journey by road. During the day we shall see three of the monastic churches for which the lake is famous, dating back to at least the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. What they lack in architectural interest compared with the Lalibela rock-hewn churches, for example, is more than made up for by the splendid ecclesiastical art.

Debre Sina Mariam church

It is an hour long drive to Gorgora but endlessly fascinating: here is a very different and largely arable landscape; and quite green 
Inside Debre Sina Mariam
and lush. We see sorghum, maize stacked to dry, prickly cacti used as fence boundaries; children walking to school along the road at 7.30am, the boys in pink uniform; ladies making the injera bread for the day in the dust by the side of the busy road; cattle shackled together in the village to prevent them wandering presumably; a field of what looked like asparagus pea, the first I have seen here; children always waving and chanting "money money" as we drive past; rough platforms built in the middle of the arable crops where children stand swinging a stone around their heads on the end of a rope to keep the birds away; and there are very many birds, including the Northern Carmine Bee-Eater, a beautiful red bird flying overhead, White Egrets, Red billed Fire Finch, Hooded Vultures, Plantain Eaters, Laughing Dove and many more. Our guide has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the bird population here.

So the lake eventually comes into view ahead of us, shimmering in the heat haze.  
Before boarding the boat we visit the typical round church of Debre Sina Mariam with its many wall paintings - a little more faded than in some other churches but still amazing. We wait for someone to come to unlock the church for us. A monk arrives in the traditional saffron yellow robes.
inside Debre Sina Mariam
As we leave the church compound an old lady shakes all our hands with a lovely warm smile and goodbye. This is the very first place where we have not been harangued by children. They are all busy with the butchering of the cow for another "swarming" or killing, which we have to walk past, this time especially for the festival on this day of Mary's Flight into Egypt. As we have seen before, the carcase is being divided up, and a woman is fetching basins of water from the lake to help in the cleaning process. It all seems rather grisly to our sanitised view of butchering, but I am willing to bet this cow had a very much happier and healthier life than many that end up plastic-wrapped on our supermarket shelves, and the end would have been swift.

Our boat is called Nigat, meaning "Dawn," and will be our transport across Lake Tana for the next few hours. This is a huge lake, the farthest shores not easily visible to us as we make our way across, and it is very muddy silted looking water, nothing like the shimmering blue of the beautiful Italian lakes for example. But the interest of what we will visit makes up for that and I find it a relaxing trip, giving the opportunity to read, meditate and consolidate all our experiences up to this moment.
Tankwa stored in the boat house at Gorgora

Boy in his Tankwa
We do see a few of the flimsy papyrus canoes or Tankwa out on the water, the occupants fishing, and we pass a few small inhabited islands. Life here must be very simple and harsh. The lake can apparently be a very hostile environment where bad weather can whip up the water dangerously and quite quickly.  

We are served coffee on the boat, brewed in the traditional way on the lower deck, with hot charcoal, incense, everything as it would be made on dry land. Health and safety? The cups are all washed up between times with water scooped from the lake!

Our next stop is the island of Dek - and the Narga Selassie Monastery. The church is near to the landing place, within its stone compound, which reminds me of the Gondar Royal Enclosure - not surprising - I learn that it was built for the Empress Mentewab

Entrance to Narga Selassie Monastery
our boat
As we landed lads rushed towards us across the water in their papyrus canoes to sell us their neat little papyrus canoe replicas. These are all handmade and different in size, shape and detail. They also try to sell us two very alive fish which they have just caught, although what we would do with them I am not sure!

Narga Selassie paintings- St George and the

inside Narga Selassie church - note yellow
candles and drum 
church at Narga Selassie Monastery
Monasteries are very attractive for people in Ethiopia as a way to find support into old age without the availability of pensions. 10,000 people live on this island of Dek and very many more come once a year to the main religious festival - it must be quite a sight with all the boats, I think. 

The pictures here in the church of are incredible, the colours vivid. 

The sun now is very hot on the lake, the metal boat deck far too hot for bare feet. Even the wooden seats in the sun burn the skin through my trousers. Soon we land again, this time to walk to the Azewa Mariam Monastery, We have to run the gauntlet of the dozens and dozens of stalls lining the rough footpath on the way. "Faranje, to look is free", they call out. But they pester to compete with each other to sell something, and I feel I would be happier to look and buy without so much harassment because there is some beautiful jewellery for example.

the Student accommodation at Azewa Mariam

Azewa Mariam church
Once at the monastery we see inside the school for priests and deacons. Because it is the festival day remembering the Flight into Egypt, the lads have the day off, so they are relaxing and drinking their home brewed tala. But they treat us to a reading, chanting from the story of the Flight, out of a Holy Book resting on a bamboo lectern which they have made for themselves. In fact the students have to make all their own huts for their accommodation as well as any furniture needed. They take some training here before going on to ordinary schools, ultimately destined to be priests. Many are already deacons. The church roof is untypically thatched making it more attractive than some of the others. Inside the church the paintings are again incredible, all very colourful but quite Chaucerian here in their crudity. 
Last Supper at Azewa Mariam
There is a striking picture which we have seen elsewhere as well - and very symbolic - of a tree full of fruit. Down at its base are two rats, one white and one black, eating the tree. A python opening his mouth represents the grave waiting for us - to the left is a man with a gun, aimed at someone picking the fruit who is not paying attention to the next life, and ignoring when this life will come to an end. In secular life, we are told, time goes faster.
Azewa Mariam - George and the Dragon
and see the Tree in bottom left hand corner
I have not fully remembered all the symbolism of this I fear, for example the significance of the white and black rats. If any one can fill in the detail please let me know. There are two interesting links I have found, where much more information can be found on Ethiopian iconography and with some tremendous photos. Here and here

at Azewa Mariam church
Back in the boat we have 40 minutes to Bahir Dar. We pass Kibran Gabriel monastery, on its island, open only to male visitors. As we approach Bahir Dar we see where the Blue Nile starts its journey to join the White Nile at Khartoum and so to the Mediterranean Soon we are at the landing stage at Bahir Dar - our coach is waiting for us and it is just a few minutes to the hotel. We will have time to unpack and rest, before meeting for evening prayers and a reflection on the day's experiences. 

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