Sacred Lake


This blog entry about the events of Wednesday, May 26, 2004 was originally posted on June 02, 2004.

DAY 221:  “Philippines!” the street boy finally guessed correctly.  Since the day before it baffled him where my heritage was from and I had him try and guess.  He told me that it it weren’t for my eyes, I’d probably pass as an Ethiopian with the color of my skin.

The Ethiopian street boys escorted us to a restaurant nearby where we picked up some sandwiches for later and then to a fruit stand for some snacks.  We had to have enough provisions for us since there would be no places to get food on our full-day tour of Lake Tana’s monasteries.

LAKE TANA, ETHIOPIA’S LARGEST LAKE (there are several in the Great Rift Valley) was the country’s most significant, it being the source of the Blue Nile River, which feeds into the more famous Nile.  The freshwater lake is home to 29 monasteries dating back to the 4th century, which are still in use today.  The farthest one of the four we were to visit was our first destination, situation on a big secluded island in the middle of the lake.

A motorized dingy driven by a young captain took me, Fred, Lishan, a guide named Yalo and two Ethiopian tourists along the water.  You may be thinking (like I did), “Ethiopian tourists?”  Yes.  Ethiopia does have citizens that are well-off enough to go on tours with Westerners.  They even had a digital still camera and a Sony Handycam video camera.  That Sally Struthers, what a bitch!  All this time we thought Ethiopia was nothing but starving kids; perhaps it really was all propaganda for her own personal gain.

WE RODE A LONG FOUR-HOUR BOAT JOURNEY, passed fishermen in papyrus reed boats and flocks of pelicans.  The ride was long and tedious and really boring after a while; the big island in the middle of the lake was so far away it wasn’t part of the standard tour, but I fell for Fred’s insistence of having to see a monastery where you look around and see nothing but water.  “It will be wahdahful!” he kept on saying.

When we finally arrived on the shore of Dek Island, it was “wahdahful” after all.  What was before me was something I’d never seen before; it was something out of medieval folklore, a tower and dock made of stone with and archway and path that led to the Narga Selassie monastery church, built out of stone and mud in the 17th century and still used today.  Resident monks led us around the grounds, starting at its “museum,” which is in quotes because it wasn’t a museum in a traditional sense; it was more like a “closet” of stuff that two monks brought out to show us, including medieval crosses dating back to the 17th century given to the monks by the royal family of Gondar, the kingdom to the north of the lake.  More impressively, the monks brought out 400-year-old texts with pages made of goatskin that had stood the test of time.  Four hundred years old, man; that’s old enough for a museum to post signs that say “PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH” or “NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY.”

“Can I touch it?” I asked Yalo who asked the monks in Amharic.


I felt the texture of the parchment and its ancient inks, feeling history pass through my pores.  (Take that, Mona Lisa!)

The church of Narga Selassie was designed in the same ring-shaped way as the other churches I had seen, only this particular one was built without the use of nails; everything fit like a puzzle, which is something to be said in an era of IKEA furniture stores.  In the center of the ring was the sacred area that was only accessible to the monks (picture above), where the tabot, a replica of the Ark of the Covenant was placed.  We walked around the tabot area with our shoes off, admiring the old murals and tapestries, all of which we could touch and flash with our cameras.

SNACKING ON BANANAS, mangoes and egg sandwiches staved our hunger as we rode back the other way to the Zege Peninsula in the train of the only other dingy of tourists out that far in the lake.  The 90-minute ride brought us to the area of several stone-built monastery churches, two of which we visited The oldest of this pair dated back to the 14th century, although it was restored with a corrugated tin room in 2001.  The two churches shared a museum, with artifacts shown to us by a shy monk who didn’t want his face on camera.  But he had no reservations showing us the 14th century crowns worn by the priests then and now.

One of the more significant monasteries, Kebran Gabriel, was our fourth and final holy site to visit of the day, although only half of us could see it; women are forbidden to enter.  I’m guessing the reason was to keep the forty monks from forty unholy boners.  Such a sacrifice is tame than what they used to do.  In the 16th century, monks wore chain-mail all day, all night, not as a form of armor, but as a self-torture device; in the day it gets extremely hot and at night it gets extremely cold.  The suffering brought them closer to God, which is something to be said in an era of unholy boners.

While Kebran Gabriel’s church design was more-or-less the same circular structure with a sacred tabot hidden in the middle away from mortals’ eyes behind walls painted with murals depicting stories of the Bible, the museum was the most impressive of all the museums of the day, mainly because the monk there was very knowledgeable with history — and he spoke English.  He showed us the 14th-century silver crosses designed in the styles of Gondor, Lalibela and Axum, ancient prayer scrolls and more ancient texts dating back to 1555 A.D.  Touching the pages was allowed again; I suppose if you can’t touch women on the island, you might as well touch 450-year-old books.

Women got their revenge (sort of) back on the mainland when Fred took Lishan to a local hairdresser in town.  “You’re not allowed in,” Mulualem told him.  “It’s for women only.”

I suppose in a town near a lake with sites sacred to men, women should have their sacred places too.

Next entry: From Guess to Gondar

Previous entry: Change of Plans

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Comments for “Sacred Lake”

  • wow, ethiopia has come a long way since the 80s. no wonder sally suthers is unemployed now. but then again, japan has become a powerful nation in the short time since the bombing of 1945.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/02  at  06:05 PM

  • “boners”???  i think “woodies” would have worked better…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/03  at  10:33 PM

  • unholy boners….huh huh huh.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/04  at  01:11 AM

  • MARKYT:  How about “Unholy Hard Ons?”

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/04  at  10:49 AM

  • ERIK - Hard ons can work better too… i haven’t heard the word boner since the 80s….

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/04  at  03:56 PM

  • Y’know, it’s interesting that the depictions of Jesus are mostly still white. Yes, it’s the nerdy side of me coming out.

    Thanks for the wonderful tour and pilgrimage (even if its only via photo/word for me), Erik, I love it!!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/08  at  10:26 AM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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Change of Plans


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