Lake Tana and Bahar Dar

Blue Nile Falls

The power of the river is really felt at the Blue Nile Falls, also known as Tis Isat, where a rumble of sound fills the air and the green fields and low hills on either bank tremble. It is one of the most dramatic spectacles on either the White or Blue Niles.

Covering more than 3,600 square kilometers, Tana is Ethiopia’s largest lake.  Known to the ancient Greeks as pseboa, its sometimes stormy waters are traversed by reed boats, called tankwas.

The Blue Nile river flows out of the lake with tremendous force and volume over the basalt shoulder in a giant cataract and onwards from there, ever downwards through dark and angry defiles, towards the deserts of Sudan on its way to enrich Egypt’s fertile delta.

The power of the Blue Nile may best be appreciated just thirty kilometers downstream form the point where the river first leaves Lake Tana.  There, a rumble of sound fills the air and the green fields and low hills on either bank tremble to the Blue Nile falls.  It is one of the most dramatic spectacles on either the White or Blue Nile, a vision of natural strength and grandeur.


Four hundred metres wide in flood, the Blue Nile plunges forty-five metres down a sheer chasm to throw up a continuous mist that drenches the countryside up to a kilometer away.  In turn, this gentle deluge produces rainbows that shimmer across the gorge under the changing arc of the sun – and a perennial rainforest.  The pillar of mist in the sky above, seen from afar, explains the local name for the falls – water that smokes.  Tis lsat village where travelers find themselves surrounded by a retinue of youthful guides.  From the village the footpath meanders beside open and fertile fields before it drops into a deep basaltic drift fields before it drops into a deep basaltic drift spanned by a fortified seventeenth-century stone bridge built by Portuguese adventurers.

A stiff climb up a grassy hillside under the blue and breathless sky follows.  Finally, the falls come into view, the smooth, majestic edge of the rolling Nile breaking into a thundering cataract of white water foaming and breaking down a dark cliff.

Rivaling the attraction of the Blue Nile Falls are the thirty-seven islands of Lake Tana.

Illuminated ScriptureSome twenty of these islands shelter churches and monasteries of significant historical and cultural interest.  Because of their isolation they were used to store art treasures and religious relics from all parts of the country.

Kibran Gabriel, the nearest monastery to Bahar Dar, is renowned for a magnificent manuscript to the Four Gospels which is believed to data back to at least the late fourteenth, or early fifteenth, century.

Access for some of the churches is closed to women, who are allowed to land on the banks of the island but not permitted to proceed further.  However women are permitted to visit churches on Zeghe peninsula and nearby church of Ura Kidane Mehret, as well as Narga Sellassie.  The traveler with ti me, could spend weeks exploring the treasures of Lake Tana and its many islands.

Ethiopia’s first two-storey building is situated within the precincts of the modern Ethiopian Orthodox church of St George beside the lake.  The fine old structure was built in the early seventeenth century by a Spanish Jesuit, pero paes, who came to try to convert the country to Catholicism.

Ura kidane Mehret is more decorative with a huge, conical thatched roof and is painted with scenes from Biblical lore.

One of the Island Monastry

The third principal attraction is Daga lstanfanos, considered one of the most sacred on Lake Tana, and said to have served as a temporary hiding place for the Ark of the Covenant.  On this stands the church of Saint stephanos which houses the holy Madonna painted around 1434.  The real historic interest lies in its treasury where there  are glass-sided coffins containing the mummified remains of several of the former emperors of Ethiopia.

A beautiful and unusual place, Tana kirkos is completely covered by dense green shrubbery, flowering trees and tall cactus plants.   Beautifully illuminated scrolls and leather bound books with leather pages hand-lettered in Ge’ez are kept here.

For centuries Bahar Dar has been a place of commercial importance.  Situated on Lake Tana’s south-eastern shore, it is the starting point of any visit to the Blue Nile Falls.  The visitor will no doubt see tankwas on the lake shore.  Still standing is the building erected by the Jesuit pero paes, which can be seen in the compound of Saint George’s church.  Emperor Haile Selassie’s modest palace is on a small hill to the right of the road after the bridge.  Bahar Dar, though bustling and pretty, is often looked at as just a base from which to visit the area’s two main attractions: the Blue Nile Falls and Lake Tana.

The town today, with its wide, palm-line avenues and gardens, overflows with tropical vegetation.  Bahar Dar’s two markets are worth a visit-one displaying colourful woven cloth and a wide range of supplies (including coffee), and the other, a roadside market specializing in baskets.  These markets make it a comfortable base for excursions-either by land or water.

Ruins of the cathedral of Emperor Susneyos stand on a precipice overlooking Lake Tana. Intricate murals adorn the walls of many of Lake Tana’s ancient Churches and monasteries.