The Island Churches of Lake Tana

lake_tana2Lake Tana is the largest lake in Ethiopia located out of the Great East African Rift Valley System. This lake has an area of about 3647-3673km2. It has approximately 37 big and small islands, 20 of them crowned with churches and monasteries. Lake Tana is the source of the Famous Blue Nile River which crosses Ethiopia 800km and out of it 650km until it meets the White Nile at the Capital city of the Sudan, Khartoum.

During the 17th centuries Lake Tana and surroundings were significant places for cultural, religious, economic and political activities.

Due to certain reasons, many saints or monks of Ethiopia moved from different regions of the country towards Lake Tana and built several churches on its islands and the surrounding areas starting from the 13th century onwards. Among those saints or monks are listed some known as the seven stars, i.e., Ab Ze Yohannes (kebran Gabriel); Abba Tadewos (Debre Mariam); Abba Betre Mariam (Zeghie); Abba Hirute Amlak (Daga Estifanos), Abba Assay (Mandaba Medhane Alem); Abba Yafqrene Egzie, and Abba Zekarias (Galila).


1. Ura Kidane Mehret: This church is located on the Zegie peninsula and visited by both men and women in a half day trip by boat from Bahir Dar. It is a round church with thatched roof in the past now replaced by iron sheet cover. The external part of the Meqdas of this church is decorated with paintings St. Mary, the angels, saints, martyrs, Jesus, and others related to the Old and New Testament theories, andit is funded by King Tekle Haymanot lake_tana_3of Gojjam from 18th-19th The Dervish Mahdists of the Sudan burnt the church.

It is believed that the church of Ura kidane Mehret was established together with other churches on the peninsula, i.e., Azwa Mariam, Zegie Giorgis, etc. by Abba Betre Mariam, who at the end broke his prayer stick into three pieces and planted them and converted into citrus, Hops, and coffee plants which are currently practiced by the inhabitants instead of growing other type of crops.

Ura Kiddane Mehret is endowed with rich treasury, consisted of different parchment books, crown of King Tekle Haymanot, Emperor yohannes IV, Empero Theodros II, etc. and royal vestments including the clock of woizero Laqech Gebre Medhin, the wife of King Tekle Haymanot, different crosses, and other ecclesiastical materials.

2. Kebran Gabriel: the track up to the monastery winds up through a shady glade of jacaranda trees. The atmosphere is one of absolute stillness. Climbing up to the hilltop, one can reach Kebran Gabriel church, a rustic wattle-and-daub octagon that seems to have been since the dawn of creation.

Inside this 14th century building, the very dust kicked up by one’s feet smells ancient. All around, the walls of the church vibrate with the colors of centuries-old paintings from the days of King David, Jesus and saints, for most of who is St George, riding the white charger.

The scene is a little island in Lake Tana, high in the hills of Ethiopia. Like many of the monasteries in Lake Tana and on the Greec’s Mount Athos, this island is also off limits to women; supposedly, even hens are not allowed here.
But tell that to the hens! On this particular day, a very demure hen, clad in her finest plumage, was strutting about. The 150 monks who live here may have had their wings clipped, but the rest of the animal kingdom does not seem to have heard the news.

Originally established in the fourteenth century in the time of Amde Tsionby Abba Ze Yohannes and rebuilt during the reign of Emperor Iyasu I (1682-1706), it is an assuming but impressive building with a distinct atmosphere. Now this church has 12 columns externally symbolizing the 12 Apostles of Christ.

This church is built with stones, from Denqaz, with the aid of foreign architects, as per the monastery’s documents. The actual building was erected in 1687 when Iyasu , decided to construct it for his guardian angel, Gabriel. Iyasu buried his son Abeto Fasiledas here and he himself used to visit the church while passing and returning from other places. Finally he himself was buried here in 1708 after being assassinated by his son Tekle Haymanot.
However, the foundation of the church said to be around 1350 by Abba Ze Yohannes who came from Shoa and resided here.
In the treasury house are collected more than 200 parchment manuscripts of the old and New Testaments. Here are also found an evangel of 1420, Metshafe Mistir of 1424, by abba Gioris, etc.

3lake_tana1. Debre Mariam: Is a round church with thatched roof earlier and metal crown to be seen across the trees. It is believed that Iyasu I in 1688 with Metropolitan Abba Sinoda chaired a council related to the Union of Christ’s nature.

The church seems to be established in the reign of Emperor Amde Tsion in the 14th century under the name ofDbre Sakon. The present church dates from the time of Emperor Thewodros II (1855-16-868). A tradition tells that its founder Abba Tadewos, a disciple of Yaqob who organized the clergy around 1340, came to the island with dry foot like Moses, the water moved away from his passage.

Debre Mariam is located exactly at the point of the outlet of the Blue Nile River where the visitor can have the opportunity of watching some hippos coming out from the water.