Bahir Dar has two claims to fame. Firstly, it situated on the shore of Lake Tana, considered the source of the Blue Nile (fyi, Lake Victoria is the source of the White Nile, and white and blue join forces in Khartoum, in Sudan). The outlet of the Nile from Lake Tana, the start of the river, is a rather underwhelming sight. Much more impressive used to be the Falls some 30 km downstream at Tis Abay (which means smoke of the Nile), also called Tis Isat (Water that smokes).
Here the water drops 45 meters, along a vertical cliff of basalts. I said ‘used to be’, because since the installation of a hydro-electric plant the vast majority of the water is being diverted, and appears again a little further downstream, from a massive pipe system. If you then also turn up in the dry season, as we are doing, much of what can be seen on tourist brochure pictures isn’t there at all anymore. All reference to smoke in the name of this village, in the form of a large spray of water, even wetting the walking path opposite the falls, is thus pretty obsolete. But don’t get me wrong, a visit to the site is still a very worthwhile undertaking, and allows for a pleasant 90 minutes walk, which we did – photos and all – in well over two hours. And we even got a little wet, very little, right in front at the bottom of the falls.
The walk includes crossing what it called the Portuguese Bridge, thought to have been constructed by the Portuguese in 1620, when they had a presence at the court of the Ethiopian emperor. However, some sources claim that the bridge has in fact been built by Ethiopians, but as so often, because the average Westerner found it difficult to believe that Africans would have been capable of something like this, they assumed that it must have been the Portuguese. ( Similar assumptions have been made, and proven wrong, with the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, and with Bushman rock paintings in Namibia.)
The second reason to come to Bahir Dar is that it is an excellent base to explore the various monasteries that have been established ages ago, from the 13th or 14th Century onwards, on several of the islands in Lake Tana, and on its edges. We saw three of them only, and these represented relatively simple structures, round, made of clay, wood and cow dung as far as I could see – some also seem to use brick pillars as supports – with bamboo cover of the corridor that goes around the church, and large wooden doors. Presumably they are continuously maintained, so how original the churches we see today are, remains the question – certainly, the corrugated iron roofs are a later addition – yet, they create a very special atmosphere, approached along a stone path, protected by an enclosure wall with a few entrances only. At the jetty where we landed we were inundated with guides offering their services, but really, the five minute walk to the church cannot be missed, lined as it is with souvenir stalls.
Some churches have a little decoration on the outside, but far more impressive is the decoration inside: clay walls in the centre of the church that had been painted from top to bottom, with scenes related to Orthodox Ethiopian church liturgy. Many of the scenes are recognizable for someone with a basic Western education, but others strike me as excessively brutal. Vivid expositions of the chopping off of heads, including red dots representing blood – black dots are tears – , hanging and drowning scenes, burning, spiking, it is all there. The best preserved paintings are in a church called Ura Kidane Mihret, as well as in nearby Awura Maryam, both of which we visited. A third church, Kibran Gebriel, clearly still part of a working monastery, was closed, but could still be visited for the outside of the church, and for the museum – these museums are a bit of a joke, generally a small shed at the back, organized as a kiosk, but they do contain several very old treasures, and old, beautifully decorated books. All safely behind the counter. Kibran Gebriel, incidentally, is, like several other churches and monasteries in Ethiopia, not accessible for women. Discussion, anyone?
By the way, a boat tour across the lake to visit these monasteries is also a great way to see birds. Large numbers of pelicans, herons, and two beautiful crown birds (?? – I am no ortithologist…).
Bahir Dar itself is a little disappointing, despite it obviously great ambitions. The town has a number of huge avenues and round-abouts, so far vastly overdesigned for the amount of traffic, and is also building an enormous football stadium and several luxurious tourists resorts. Whether this grandiose view of the future is justified, remains to be seen. The market certainly hadn’t received a modern make-over yet, and was your usual collection of dusty stalls and selling from a blanket. Strangely, not very photogenic, in part because, at least when we got there mid-afternoon, anybody in traditional cloths had left already. No shortage of mean-looking characters with an unusual and persistent interest in our pockets, though – or are we becoming paranoid?