Lake Tana: Lake of Ethiopian Emperors’ Remains

Map of Ethiopia
Map of Ethiopia

This week, I will be talking about the great civilization of the Solomonic era in Ethiopia and particularly Lake Tana.  But what does a lake have to do with civilization? Well, lake Tana is Ethiopia’s largest lake and is also the source of the Blue Nile.  There are several islands on the lake: the Portuguese missionary Manuel de Almeida in the 17th century counted about 21 of which 8 had monasteries on them; today some count 45 of which 19 have monasteries dated from the 14th and 17th centuries on them.   So what does it have to do with civilization?
Well, the sepulchers and remains of many emperors (14th-17th centuries), treasures of the Ethiopian church, as well as ancient manuscripts are kept on some of the most isolated islands of Lake Tana (Ura Kidane Mehret, Narga Selassie, Kebran Gabriel, Daga Estifanos, Medhane Alem of Rema, Kota Maryam, Mertola Maryam, etc)!  It is being said that Frumentius, who introduced Christianity to Ethiopia, is buried on Tana Cherqos.  The body of Yekuno Amlak rests in the monastery of St. Stephen on Daga island. Emperors Dawit I, Zara Yaqob, Za Dengel and Fasilides, also lay on Daga island.

Mural at Uda Kidane Mihret
Mural at Uda Kidane Mihret

Lake Tana was already known by Ptolemee in the 2nd century BC, which he called Pseboe or ‘hollow swamps‘ (marais creux en francais).  It was very important in the 14th through the 17th centuries, as it played a key role in maintaining the Christian faith, and the rise of the Solomonic dynasty and the Christian Abyssinian empire. During the Solomonic dynasty, building churches and monasteries was emphasized, just like building pyramids in Egypt was emphasized by pharaohs.  Many crown jewels, treasures and precious manuscripts were stored on islands on Lake Tana.  The oldest of these forty churches from the Solomonic era was built in the 14th century.  The architecture reflects its era: the use of round shapes in the building technique.  Each monastery/church consists of three main rooms or areas: the inner sanctuary, the inner ambulatory, and the outer ambulatory.  The outside walls of the sanctuary are covered with magnificent colorful paintings reflecting that era.  Seven of these churches (and the most accessible) have been chosen by the UNESCO campaign for renovation.

Around the 16th century, lake Tana became an important trade center for travellers who were coming to the famous market of Bahir Dar by foot or tankwa (reed boats made out of papyrus).   Lake Tana was an important stop linking the north to the south of Ethiopia.

To learn more, go to the UNESCO World Heritage’s website, as well as the Selamta website whose emphasis is on Ethiopia’s lakes, Ethiopia travel, and check out pictures of the lake and other places in Ethiopia.  Enjoy this great video… of a lake full of ancient treasures!

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