The Source of the Nile

Early yesterday morning we left Addis and took a short flight to the city of Bahir Dar on the Southern shores of Lake Tana, source of the Blue Nile. Here we begin our Historic Circuit where we will visit the remains of powerful kingdoms and some of the still active churches in a region that many still believe was first converted to Christianity by Christ’s apostles in the first century. So great was the power and influence of these kingdoms that emissaries were sent to Europe in the middle ages. I find it difficult to equate the England of the Crusades and the Wars of the Roses with contact made by an African civilisation already thousands of years old.

Perhaps if the Plantagenets hadn’t been so busy fighting each other for the crown and paid more attention to diplomacy they would have broadened their horizons immeasurably for, by the time of the more outward looking Tudors in the sixteenth century, Ethiopia was embroiled in long and bloody religious wars of its own. Anyway, I am in danger of losing myself here since the history of this country is incredibly complex and I have yet to come to grips with it. When I am eventually able to post some pictures I shall have to add a time line. However, even a cursory glance throws a rather ridiculous light on the antics of the British explorers in Africa during the 18th and 19th centuries.

It was a Scotsman named James Bruce who claimed to have found the source of the Blue Nile, largest tributary of the River Nile itself in 1770 and he published an account full of the great tribulations and heroic endeavours of his journey, the kind of adventure that inspired generations of British schoolboys to go off and conquer the world. Our Ethiopian guide told us that the reason that the sun never set on the British Empire was because no one trusted us in the dark. In fact the Blue Nile begins in Lake Tana, some eighty miles across and dotted with islands upon which sit ancient monasteries where life has changed little for hundreds of years.

Such is the geography of the Rift Valley (again I do not have access to enough reference material to explain) that the river Nile flows out of the lake and down to the Blue Nile Falls some fifty miles to the South East. We visited the falls which are more red than blue at this time of year due to the amount of sediment carried by waters swollen by the recent rains. There is not much to say about the great waterfalls of the world that has not already been said thousands of times before but, for both Grahame and I, this was our first and we had the benefit of enjoying it without the crowds of visitors or miles of tourist paraphernalia that no doubt attend the better known examples.

Today we took a boat trip on Lake Tana to see a couple of the celebrated island monasteries that have been here since the 14th century. The first, Narga Selassie on Dek Island, seemed remote and overgrown, looked after by only two monks and their elderly assistant. However, it turns out to be well attended by the local farming community on Sundays and visited by pilgrims from further afield on feast days. In other words, the slightly battered, tin-roofed building inside which long curtains can be held back to display brightly painted biblical scenes is a working church. Photography was permitted and so I attempted a moody study of the younger monk leaning on his prayer staff and contemplating the paintings but he turned and gave me a big grin and then gestured to indicate that a tip would be required. I discretely paid up but no matter how hard I tried I was unable to get my shot. This was hardly surprising in view of the fact that this handsome young chap has had his picture featured in various travel guides in recent years. At least the monastery cat obliged without similar demure.

The second of these monasteries selected for our outing was Ura Kidane Medet on the Zege peninsular. Despite the fact that local accounts of the age of these buildings vary wildly, the great wooden doors of this one were definitely hundreds of years old as were many of the gorgeous artefacts in the tiny museum. Not so however, the painted murals which we were told were executed on cloth with pigments made from local vegetable matter while at the same time assured that they were painted in the 14th century. I managed to get some pictures of the degraded specimens in a less obvious corner, showing what happens to vegetable dyes after a few decades and a local artist, demonstrating his wares on the street of the vendors outside, showed me some of his colouring materials and methods. I look forward to being able to include the pictures that I hope will explain more clearly.

Of course the devotional content of the mural paintings was fascinating as well, being drawn in many cases from holy books not widely accepted in the Roman church. For example the story of Mariam (Mary) forgiving and rescuing the cannibal from eternal damnation makes for some interesting representations. We will be visiting many more churches during this trip, though, and I hope to have the opportunity to understand rather more of what we are looking at.


Categories: Africa

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