Ethiopia / Places We Go

The Monasteries of Lake Tana – Ura Kidane Mehiret

Lake Tana is perhaps most famous for the monasteries sprinkled across its shoreline and islands. Many monasteries date from the late 16th or early 17th century, though most were founded much earlier and likely were the site of pre-Christian shrines.

One of the best examples of traditional Ethiopian monasteries, Ura Kidane Meret, sits on the Zege Peninsula and its maqdas (the central core of the circular structures) is very elaborately painted.

The Zege Peninsula is 35 minutes by boat from Bahir Dar (if you secure a boat with a 40 HP motor).

It is said the Ark of the Covenant was hidden at another monastery on the lake, Tana Cherkos, for 800 years. However, the present 19th-century monastery at Tana Cherkos is, to put it politely, rather modest.

Women are only permitted to visit certain monasteries and Tana Cherkos is not one of them.

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Upon arrival at the Zege Peninsula, one hikes for ten to fifteen minutes through the jungle to reach Ura Kidane Mehiret…

ura kidane mehiret peninsula

ura kidane mehiret trail

ura kidane mehiret peninsula

ura kidane mehiret

…Before arriving at a small village bordering Ura Kidane Mehiret:

ura kidane mehiret village

ura kidane mehiret

Just after the village, one enters the grounds of the monastery:

ura kidane mehiret grounds

A grave on the grounds of the monastery:

ura kidane mehiret grave

A piece of a wall surrounding the monastery grounds was being repaired and the tools being used were medieval. For example, instead of using a wheelbarrow, these were being used to haul heavy stones from the shores of Lake Tana:

ura kidane mehiret

The exterior of Ura Kidane Mehiret:

ura kidane mehiret

A priest on the exterior of Ura Kidane Mehiret:

ura kidane mehiret exterior

The first ring of the interior of Ura Kidane Mehiret:

ura kidane mehiret interior

ura kidane mehiret drums

As mentioned above, the inner core of the monasteries is called the maqdas. Worshippers face onto the maqdas, which are painted with biblical scenes. Colors are rich and bright, yellow, red, olive and blue, and are applied directly onto a fibrous paper bonded to the wall. In a country with only 25 per cent literacy, these narrative paintings have the same function as medieval cathedral stone carvings and stained glass windows. The paintings come across as formally naive, almost awkward. As an interesting “oh by the way”, I was informed that the maqdas at Ura Kidane Mehiret was constructed out of animal dung.

The maqdas:

ura kidane mehiret

ura kidane mehiret interior

A closer look at the maqdas paintings:

ura kidane mehiret

ura kidane mehiret

ura kidane mehiret

ura kidane mehiret

Some of the religious scenes are easy to recognize, such as St. George and his dragon:

ura kidane mehiret saint george

Others are not… It looks like this guy is pooing or farting and is being admonished for wiping his butt with his hand rather than the piece of toilet paper being offered by the priest in the background. Priests just take all of the fun out of life:

ura kidane mehiret art

Other scenes offer displays of warmth and friendliness:

ura kidane mehiret

ura kidane mehiret

ura kidane mehiret

ura kidane mehiret

ura kidane mehiret art

Outside the main monastery is a building housing a collection of Ethiopian religious iconography, primarily a collection of 16th- and 18th- century crosses and crowns (Note the man with the rifle guarding the collection):

ura kidane mehiret outbuildings

Of more interest to me than the crosses and crowns though was this collection of religious books – some said to date back to the 13th century:

Ura Kidane Mehiret books

Ura Kidane Mehiret bible

A priest at Ura Kidane Mehiret watching the goings on:

ura kidane mehiret

9 thoughts on “The Monasteries of Lake Tana – Ura Kidane Mehiret

  1. The painting of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian (the guy tied to the post with all the arrows in his chest) is really interesting. The “Romans” who killed him are depicted as either a kind of Portuguese conquistador or bizarro Italian army officers. Great pics.

  2. I think the hospitality you’re referring to was not that of the Christians. These scenes depict the persecution of Christians by Moslems – note the dress of those wielding weapons. Note also that frequently the victims have halos.

    • That is an excellent point, Robyn, and upon re-examining the pictures, I suspect that you are correct.

  3. HI Justin, If, as I suspect from his clothing and action, the guy pooing is a Muslim -correctly using his left hand to clean himself after defecating – then the meaning of the priest proffering the cleansing paper is twofold: admonishment both for being a Muslim, and for the Muslim practice of toilet behaviour. Jan
    PS – the state of those exquisite books is heartbreaking.

    • That’s a very interesting interpretation of the paintings and one I had not considered. Your analysis makes a great deal of sense and, given the context, I believe you are most likely correct.

      Great comment, Jan. I thank you for your keen eye and perspective…

      Yes, the condition of the books and the manner in which they were stored was definitely disappointing.

  4. hi, i’m so excited when i see this blog. i really love it. i have never seen it with my eyes. thank you very much.
    God bless U
    Getinet
    Arbaminch, Ethiopia

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