The Hidden Treasures of Lake Tana

Hidden among the shores and islands of Lake Tana in northern Ethiopia are over 20 monasteries, many of which date from the 14th century. Departing by boat from the pleasant city of Bahir Dar, we drift from one monastery to the next, discovering their treasures.

Deceptively simple on the outside, these monastic churches burst with colour on the inside. Their walls are covered from top to bottom with colourful murals, steeped in biblical history mixed with Ethiopian legends. Not antiquated museums, but rather active places of worship, the murals are refreshed by coats of new paint when their colours fade. They are filled with priests praying, sleeping, and hanging around, as well as with deacons studying and at work (some of whom seem frustrated at the isolation).

The murals tell stories. Intended to teach a largely illiterate population, they use methods such as depicting evil characters in profile with only one eye. A figure who figures prominently is the Virgin Mary, known in Ethiopia as Saint Mary. The mercy of St Mary is depicted often through the story of Belai the cannibal, a terrible man who ate everyone he met, including his own family. One day, Belai met a leprous beggar, who implored him for some water in the name of St Mary. From some dark corner of his mind Belai remembered her name, and gave the beggar a handful of water. When Belai reached the gates of heaven, St Peter weighed the good and bad deeds of his life against each other. The bad clearly outweighed the good, but St Mary raised her hand and let its shadow fall on the side of the good to tip the scale the other way, thereby allowing Belai into heaven.