Ancient empires come alive

The area around Lake Tana has a rich history that stretches back over many centuries, through ancient empires and dynasties. History, legends and beliefs passed down over the years form an important part of the Ethiopian’ identity and continue to shape the culture today.

Lake Tana has been the political and spiritual centre of the Ethiopian Christian faith for many centuries. References to the Blue Nile can be found in the Old Testament of the Bible as the River Gihon, which “flows around the whole land of Cush” (as Ethiopia was known to the Hebrews).

Between the 14th and 17th century the lake played an important part in the rise of the Solomonic dynasty and the Christian Abyssinian Empire. Legend has it that the Queen of Sheba travelled to Jerusalem to visit King Solomon. She returned to her kingdom in Ethiopia and gave birth to a son who became Emperor Menelik I. When he was 22, Menelik visited his father in Jerusalem and on his return brought the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia. Throughout the following 3,000 year-long ‘Solomonic Dynasty’, emperors built many churches and monasteries, including those found on the islands and shores of Lake Tana. The crown jewels, and treasures, as well as ancient manuscripts of the Ethiopian church have been hidden away on the islands, including, according to legend, the Ark of Covenant itself.

Portuguese Jesuit missionaries came to the area around Lake Tana in the 16th and 17th century with the intention of converting the Ethiopians to Roman Catholicism. Their influence can still be seenin several buildings that were erected along the shore of the lake during that time, including Guzara Castle, the Portuguese Cathedral and the Palace of Susneyos found in Gorgora. Ethiopia’s first stone bridge, Agam Dildi, was built by the Portuguese at the command of Emperor Susneyos in 1626.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Lake Tana became an important trading hub, with travellers coming from far and wide to visit the famous market in Bahir Dar and trade luxurious goods. Ethiopia has had several temporary capital cities since the late 13th century, but in an attempt to unite church and state Emperor Fasilides founded Gondar, a city just north of Lake Tana, and named it as the permanent capital of Ethiopia in 1636, which it would remain for the following 200 prosperous years.