Lake Tana sees Nile begin in Ethiopia

Way up in the Ethiopian highlands is a lake whose waters eventually end up in the Mediterranean Sea many thousands of kilometres away.

The true source of the Blue Nile is said to be a small stream called Gish Abbai, which flows from a height of 2,744 metres into Lake Tana. This lake varies in size, depending on the season and the amount of rainfall received in its surrounding area, but it generally said to be 84kms long, 66kms wide and has a depth of about 15 metres.

The water empties out of Lake Tana at a place called Tis Issat, which is also called the Blue Nile Falls, and in the wet season the flow is immense. Ethiopia is a bastion of Christianity, and the river below these falls is believed to have fed the biblical Garden of Eden, so that Lake Tana has great religious significance for the Ethiopian people who are mainly Orthodox Christians, but there is a strong following for Islam too.

A number of islands dot the lake, and many of these contain monasteries, and although some are said to be the world’s oldest Christian churches, some of them are still in use today. One of these monasteries is said to have housed the Ark of the Covenant, which adherents to the Ethiopian Church now believe is kept in the town of Axum.

The biggest town on Lake Tana is Bahir Dar which, ironically, was first established by Jesuits in the 16th century. From Bahir Dar is it possible to arrange to visit many of the islands which dot the lake, although you should note that, for religious reasons, women may not be allowed to land at some of the islands.

Lake Tana was one of Ethiopia’s last monarch, Emperor Haile Selaissie’s favoutie places and he had a palace built in Bahir Dar from which you get magnificent views of the Blue Nile. Although an Orthodox Christian himself, Emperor Selaissie was the inspiration for Rastafarianism which began on the Caribbean island of Jamaica and which has spread, in a minor way, to Ethiopia.

Bahir Dar is Ethiopia’s third largest city, so it is endowed with many facilities. It also has a very good market which operates most days. There are regular bus connections to the capital Addis Ababa, and most tourists also like to visit the town of Lalibela which is famous for the number of churches that have been hewn out of solid rock, so it is easy to find transport there as well.

Lake Tana is an important and inspiring natural attraction, but it does have a great human heritage as well, so is certainly worth the effort to plan a visit.

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