The Northern Circuit
Kibran – Northern Circuit Attractions
Introduction to Bahir Dar
Bahir Dar, which means “by the side of the sea“ in the Amharic language, is a port city located on the southern shore of Lake Tana.
The expansive lake creates a beautiful backdrop for this attractive city, with Palm and Jacaranda trees lining its streets. Fascinating architecture and a myriad of restaurants and shops make this an excellent destination to explore at leisure.
Bahir Dar, capital of the Amhara region in northern Ethiopia, started as a Jesuit settlement around the 16th and 17th centuries. Emperor Halie Selassie considered moving the national capital here and one of his palaces stands near the city.
Bahir Dar is a haven for tourists, offering access to the Blue Nile Falls and more than 30 lush islands, many occupied by fascinating ancient churches and monasteries.
Good to Know
Recommended length of stay: 1-2 Nights
Elevation: 1,820 meters (5,970 feet) above sea level
Major Religion: Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity
Awarded UNESCO Cities for Peace Prize
Where to Stay when in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia
Kuriftu Resort & Spa
Located on the shore of Lake Tana, Kuriftu Resort & Spa is a haven of luxury and tranquility. The 28 rooms, which include 2 presidential-type suites, are stylishly decorated, spacious and comfortable. All rooms are air-conditioned, have a private balcony, flat-screen TV and room service. The impressive entertainment deck has a large sparkling swimming pool and looks out over the lake – a perfect spot for lazy afternoons and sundowners! The restaurant offers a delicious selection of traditional Ethiopian and international fare. The organic spa provides a range of pampering treatments, which can be enjoyed in the evening for those who have been out all day exploring. Kuriftu Resort & Spa were awarded with a Tripadvisor Travelers’ Choice Award in 2020.
Blue Nile Hotel
Conveniently situated in the heart of Bahir Dar – only a few minutes’ walk from the lake, Blue Nile Hotel caters to leisure and business tourists alike. The hotel has 135 comfortable bedrooms, each equipped with Satellite TV and fast Wi-Fi.
Blue Nile Hotel is a reputable and popular meeting venue, with excellent facilities. The restaurant offers international and local cuisine, with 24-hour room service option. The garden and sun terrace offer beautiful views of the city and the lake beyond. Each room also has coffee/tea facility and mini-bar. The hotel’s spa provides a range of pampering treatments.
Good to Know
- The time zone in Ethiopia is East Africa Time (EAT), GMT +3.
- Ethiopia has two seasons: a dry season (mid-September to May), and a rainy season (June to mid-September).
- Modest dress is appropriate, especially when visiting sacred sites. Shoes must always be removed before entering churches or mosques, and women are requested to wear a head covering.
Top tourist sites to visit when in Bahir Dar
BLUE NILE FALLS
A short distance downstream you will come across a 17th-century Portuguese bridge, constructed at the command of Emperor Susenyos. This was the first bridge that was built across the Blue Nile River.
The lake is dotted with more than 30 islands, many of which house churches and monasteries.
Lake Tana is a birdwatcher’s paradise. The lake’s wetlands provide an ideal habitat for a spectacular host of enedemic bird life. The area is also a key location for birds migrating between Europe, Asia and Africa. More than 300 species have been recorded in and around the lake.
The area is also rich in fauna. Hippopotamuses can often be seen where the Blue Nile flows out of Lake Tana. Denser forested areas are home to Black and White Colobus Monkeys (and some extravagantly colored butterflies and dragonflies). Crested Porcupines, Duiker, Genets and Nile Monitors (up to a meter long) are also frequently spotted in this area.
LAKE TANA MONASTERIES
Two of the renowned island monasteries that are well worth a visit are Ura Kidane Mihret and Azua Mariam. Both have wonderful wall-paintings which depict scenes from the Old and the New Testaments of the Holy Bible. Ura is known especially for its fine frescoes, manuscripts and ecclesiastical exhibits: crowns from various emperors dated from the 14th century, processional crosses of silver & gold, silver drums and royal vestments.
Some monasteries are located on islands in the lake, others on the Zege Peninsula.
Some monasteries, such as Dega Estafanos, do not allow women to enter. It is good to familiarize yourself with the traditions and rules of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church when you visit. Modest dress is appropriate and it is a requirement that all visitors remove their shoes before entering a church or monastery.
- DEBRE MARYAM
The original 14th century church was rebuilt by Emperor Tewedros in the 19th Century, making Debre Maryam one of the newer Lake Tana monasteries. Although the church is not one of the most visually appealing of churches, it is well worth visiting. On arrival on shore there is a short, scenic walk along a path lined with fig, mango and coffee trees. Experience the warm welcome of a friendly priest and view some ancient manuscripts. For those on the lookout for an added dimension of adventure, it is possible to hire a tankwa papyrus boat just before the Nile Bridge, and to paddle across to the island that way.
- DEGA ESTEFANOS
Dega Estafanos is named after Saint Stephen, with Dega meaning “high place” in Amharic – an apt inclusion in the name, as a steep 45-minute walk will take you to the center of the island, where the main church is located. The original church burned down during a grass fire and was rebuilt about a century ago. This relatively modern building houses a treasured Holy Madonna, painted between 1434 and 1468, during the reign of Emperor Zara Yaqob. On route to the main sanctuary stands a treasury that holds ancient religious relics, church treasures and the mummified remains of five former emperors of Ethiopia, including Zara Yacob, Fasilidas and Yekuno Amlak, who restored the Solomonic dynasty to the throne in 1270. A selection of crowns and crosses, worn by the emperors between the 13th and 16th centuries add to the collection of impressive antiquities, as well as a holy first copy of a manuscript written in the Ge’ez language. Although women may enter the treasury, it is not permissible for them to enter the church. The monastery is about 2½ hours by boat from Bahir Dar, then a further 30-minutes’ walk up a steep trail.
- NARGA SELASSIE
Located on Dek Island, in the middle of Lake Tana, Narga Selassie is set amid a piece of paradise. Due to its distance from Bahir Dar (around three and a half hours by speedboat), this church is less frequently visited in comparison to the other Lake Tana churches. It is well worth the journey, though – not only for the breathtaking location, but also for the fine original paintings. The church itself was built in a Gonderian style.
- TANA QIRQOS (TANA CHERKOS)
Tana Qirqos Monastery, according to Ethiopian Orthodox tradition, is believed to have housed the Biblical Ark of The Covenant for 800 years after it was removed from Jerusalem, before being relocated to the Church of St Mary of Zion, where it is believed to be today. Fish Eagles nest in the dense forest that covers the shores of this island, located a three-hour boat trip from Bahir Dar.
- KEBRAN GABRIEL
Although Kebran Gabriel is not open to the public, men may enter if attending mass during service times. All visitors can view the outside of the monastery, then visit the small treasury containing some old books and pictures. Kebran Gabriel was founded in the 14th Century, but rebuilt in the 17th Century. The monastery is built in the traditional round shape, and has twelve stone pillars supporting the roof. These represent the twelve apostles. The interior is said to be one of the most beautiful of the Lake Tana monasteries. This monastery is located a 20 minute boat trip from Bahir Dar, on route to the Zege Peninsula.
THE ZEGE PENINSULA
The Zege Peninsula occupies the centre of the Lake Tana Biosphere Reserve – part of UNESCO’s global network of sites where people and nature co-exist in harmony. In addition to the ancient cultural attractions, the area is extremely rich in biodiversity. The Zege Peninsula features a pristine indigenous forest. Wild Arabica coffee plants flourish here, and along the shores of the lake you will see papyrus, from which the traditional Tankwa boats are fashioned. Spectacular hiking trails offer visitors the opportunity to be immersed in the breathtaking scenery. A range of habitats including wetlands, grasslands, swamps and dense forest make the Zege Peninsula an excellent Lake Tana Birdwatching destination.
The wetlands around Lake Tana are also home to more than 67 medicinal plant species.
Located at the southern end of the lake, it can be easily accessed by boat (or road) from Bahir Dar.
MONASTERIES ON THE ZEGE PENINSULA:
Seven ancient monasteries stand amid the lush indigenous forest of the Zege Peninsula, easily accessible by boat (or car) from Bahir Dar.
- URA KIDANE MEHRET
After mooring the boat, you can enjoy a meandering 25-minute walk through coffee plantations growing under the shady canopy of tall trees. The inside of the Ura Kidane Mehret monastery is regarded as the most beautiful in the region. Vibrant and colorful frescoes adorn the walls, depicting Ethiopian saints and the history of the Ethiopian Orthodox church. The Zege Satekela Museum houses an interesting collection of hand-crafted objects and traditional musical instruments. Men and women are permitted to enter the church.
- BETE MARYAM
The House of Mary or Bete Mayam in Amharic, dates back to around 1430, making it the oldest of the monasteries on the Zege Peninsula. The original murals were replaced in the 1700’s. They are excellent depictions of Ethiopian Orthodox saints and Bible scenes, painted in the colorful exuberance of the Ethiopian style of its time.
- AZUWA MARYAM MONASTERY
Azuwa Maryam Church is one of the most attractive of the Lake Tana Monasteries. It is built in the traditional round shape, but differs from the other monasteries in that it has a thatched roof, like Bete Maryam. The interior walls are adorned with beautiful murals. A religious school nearby prepares monks, priests and deacons to be ordained. As you approach you will hear the chants of those who feel called to monastic life. They spend eight hours a day reciting and chanting holy verses, with their preparation taking a minimum of seven years. The site also has a small museum one can visit.
- BETE SELASSIE & TEKLA HAIMANOT
The beautiful frescoes make this 45-minute walk to these monasteries well worth the effort. It is to be noted that women may not enter Bete Selassie. Tekla Haimanot was built on the Zege Peninsula’s highest point, but thick vegetation obscures the views.
PALACE OF EMPEROR HAILE SELASSIE
The Palace of the Emperor Haile Selassie at Bizeit offers great views of the town and the lake, including where the Blue Nile flows from the Lake. The palace, although architecturally impressive, may not be entered.
Weyto village, 2km west of town, is known for its production of Tankwa boats.
BIRDWATCHING AT LAKE TANA
The lake’s wetlands provide an ideal habitat for a spectacular host of endemic bird life. The area is also a key location for birds migrating between Europe, Asia and Africa. More than 300 species have been recorded in and around the lake. Vast flocks of Great White Pelicans are a magnificent sight to behold, and you can also look out for endangered species such as the Black-crowned Crane and Wattled Crane, which frequent the landscapes and wetlands around the lake. Standing over a meter tall, these birds are an impressive sight! Other rare gems that may be spotted here are the elusive Yellow-fronted Parrot and brightly colored Half-collared Kingfisher.
Local Attractions in Bahir Dar
Bahir Dar Area Photo Gallery
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