Lake Tana, " Tana Hayk", Ethiopian's great highland lake lies just north of the town of Bahir Dar at a height of 1,840 metres above sea-level. It was created by volcanic activity about 25 million years ago. Apart from its wealth of bird life, the most notable aspect of this lake is a great many Ethiopian orthodox churches and monasteries along the shores and on the islands.
There are about 21 churches and monasteries, holding impressive collections of religious objects, including silver crowns, crucifixes and huge bibles in Ge'ez, Ethiopian liturgical language. There are unique icons, mural paintings, manuscripts on parchment and scrolls, representing wonderful examples of Ethiopian civilisation. The Zege peninsula, on the southwestern side of the lake, has what is probably the most accessible monastery, Ura Kidhane Mihret: it is not highly isolated from the local communities, surrounded by people who are leading a non-monastic life. The peninsula is a two hour boat journey from Bahir Dar, but in the dry season is also accessible overland.
The monastery of Ura Kidhane Mihret consists, like the others, of a wooden church shaped like a traditional African house, with a thatched roof, topped by a large cross, decorated with ostrich feathers (although a corrugated iron roof has been placed to protect its treasures from leaking water). A corridor runs around the outer wall with a number of entrances while in the centre of the church, surrounded by an inner corridor, is the "Holy of Holies", the inner chamber where the "Tabot", a replica of the Arc of the Covenant is kept; this may only be entered by priests. The walls are covered in frescoes, there are large candelabras and the air is thick with incense. Around the church, in the surrounding woods, are "tukul", round huts where the monks live. The treasures and relics are kept in a smaller stone church.
There are frequent festivals on the liturgical calendar, like this Festival of the Virgin Mary. Five priests, in magnificent robes and holding staffs and crosses, go in procession around the inner corridor, attended by six acolytes, young boys, dressed in robes with silver ornaments and carrying colourful umbrellas as a sign of honour to the priests, the bishop and sacred objects. At every corner they bow and sing in Ge'ez, Ethiopia's liturgical language. Meanwhile, in another room, around 50 turbaned priests and monks sing and dance, accompanied by two large "Kabaro" drums, "tsinatseil", (sistrum), a rattle, which has small metal disks loosely suspended on rods, and the clapping of hands: a very lively performance. Later, while a boy acolyte plays on an accordion, a large bible is brought out from the Holy of Holies by three priests, each wearing a large silver crown.