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Monday, 24 September, 2001, 15:16 GMT 16:16 UK
Ethiopia's neglected island monasteries
Painting in one of Ethiopia's many monasteries
Dampness and decay have taken their toll on ancient drawings
By Nita Bhalla in northern Amhara

As the boat's motor revved into action, and we set off from the green, fertile banks of Bahr Dar town into the great expanse of water before us, I could not help but marvel at the vastness of Ethiopia's largest Lake - Lake Tana.


These monasteries are our history and culture. They are what make us Ethiopians. It hurts to see what is happening to them

Yohannes Wolde-Mariam, Tourist
Located in northern Amhara region, Lake Tana is the source of the Blue Nile river and has a huge surface area of 3,673 square kilometres.

But it is not the vastness of the blue Tana waters or even the beauty of the lush tropical forests surrounding the lake, that inspire people to visit this area.

It is what lies in the distance, hidden in the forested islands which dot the blue waters as far as the eye can see.

Sense of anticipation

On these 30 islands, lie some of the oldest monasteries in Africa - some dating to as early as the 8th century.


Many others are found in remote areas, perched on the peaks of mountains or on the edges of cliffs.

So, it was with a great sense of anticipation that my guide, Girma and I boarded the six-seater boat and set off at dawn.

After a one hour journey, passing the early morning fisherman in their papyrus boats and scores of pelicans floating carelessly on the water, we reached the Zege peninsula.

Remarkable

After wading through dense tropical forest, we stumbled across a small gate which led into the large compound of Urai Kidane Mihiret monastery.

Memer Gebre Mariam of Kidane Mihiret Monastery
Monks are subsistence farmers
A giant round structure made from wood, mud and grass stood before us.

It was remarkable to believe that this monastery was 600 years old, built in the 14th Century by a monk called Abune Yohannes.

Although it was originally constructed from natural materials, the monks had now placed corrugated iron over half of the roof to stop the rain from damaging the treasures that lay within.

'Holy of holies'

I was greeted by a monk dressed in bright yellow robes. We went into a circular inner chamber called the "Holy of Holies", with 12 doors, representing the 12 apostles, encircling it.

"Only priests and monks are permitted to enter the "Holy of Holies". This is where we keep the Tabot, which is a replica of the Arc of the Covenant," my guide explained.

One of the centuries old paintings in need of restoration
The images need restoring
"Every one of the 30,000 churches and monasteries in Ethiopia keeps a Tabot," Girma said.

The huge walls of this inner chamber are covered from top to bottom in intricately painted designs. These centuries old paintings in rich, bold colours depict stories from the bible.

Ethiopia's favourite saint, Saint George is colourfully illustrated in bright gold, red and green, slaying the evil dragon.

The virgin Mary, sits majestically on a throne with the baby Jesus in her arms. And Jesus, as an adult, is depicted pouring water to outcast lepers crouched at his feet.

"The monk who painted this did not have the industrial paints that we have now, so he made paints from animal blood and flour with natural dyes," explained Girma.

"It took the monk four years to paint the outside walls of the "holy of holies," he added.

Strict routine

Mehmer Gebre Mariam is one of the 40 monks living in this secluded monastery. He says he likes the solitude that Kidane Mihiret offers.

"We have a strict routine. We wake up at midnight and pray together until first light, which is around 0600.

We eat a basic meal of bread and injera (a local staple food made from teff) once a day at around 1700," he says.

Tourists

Some of the island monasteries allow tourists to visit and the small entrance fee of $1.50 helps to maintain the existence of these ancient institutions.

Painting in need of repair
A new roof is needed to protect the paintings

But many of the island monasteries are severely dilapidated. The paintings are in desperate need of restoration.

Years of dampness and decay have taken their toll on these magnificent paintings as the walls peel, the paintings fade and the dyes begin to run.

Mehmer Gebre Mariam admits that it is a serious problem.

Many needs

"We need a new roof to stop the rain from damaging the paintings further. We need a generator as there is no electricity here and praying in the darkness throughout the night is very hard for us," he says.

The money made from tourists is usually shared amongst the monasteries. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Addis Ababa takes a cut of 20% of the income generated from some them.

Yohannes Wolde-Mariam, an Ethiopian tourist was angry at the state of their national treasures:

"These monasteries are our history and our culture. They are what make us Ethiopian. It hurts to see what is happening to them".

See also:

13 Jul 00 | Africa
Ancient Axum profits from peace
22 Jun 01 | Africa
No return for Ethiopian treasure
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