June 03, 2004
DAY 221: "Philippines!" the street boy finally guessed correctly. Since the day before it baffled him where my heritage was from and I had him try and guess. He told me that it it weren't for my eyes, I'd probably pass as an Ethiopian with the color of my skin.
The Ethiopian street boys escorted us to a restaurant nearby where we picked up some sandwiches for later and then to a fruit stand for some snacks. We had to have enough provisions for us since there would be no places to get food on our full-day tour of Lake Tana's monasteries.
LAKE TANA, ETHIOPIA'S LARGEST LAKE (there are several in the Great Rift Valley) was the country's most significant, it being the source of the Blue Nile River, which feeds into the more famous Nile. The freshwater lake is home to 29 monasteries dating back to the 4th century, which are still in use today. The farthest one of the four we were to visit was our first destination, situation on a big secluded island in the middle of the lake.
A motorized dingy driven by a young captain took me, Fred, Lishan, a guide named Yalo and two Ethiopian tourists along the water. You may be thinking (like I did), "Ethiopian tourists?" Yes. Ethiopia does have citizens that are well-off enough to go on tours with Westerners. They even had a digital still camera and a Sony Handycam video camera. That Sally Struthers, what a bitch! All this time we thought Ethiopia was nothing but starving kids; perhaps it really was all propaganda for her own personal gain.
When we finally arrived on the shore of Dek Island, it was "wahdahful" after all. What was before me was something I'd never seen before; it was something out of medieval folklore, a tower and dock made of stone with and archway and path that led to the Narga Selassie monastery church, built out of stone and mud in the 17th century and still used today. Resident monks led us around the grounds, starting at its "museum," which is in quotes because it wasn't a museum in a traditional sense; it was more like a "closet" of stuff that two monks brought out to show us, including medieval crosses dating back to the 17th century given to the monks by the royal family of Gondar, the kingdom to the north of the lake. More impressionably, the monks brought out 400-year-old texts with pages made of goatskin that had stood the test of time. Four hundred years old, man; that's old enough for a museum to post signs that say "PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH" or "NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY."
"Can I touch it?" I asked Yalo who asked the monks in Amharic.
I felt the texture of the parchment and its ancient inks, feeling history pass through my pores. (Take that, Mona Lisa!)
The church of Narga Selassie was designed in the same ring-shaped way as the other churches I had seen, only this particular one was built without the use of nails; everything fit like a puzzle, which is something to be said in an era of IKEA furniture stores. In the center of the ring was the sacred area that was only accessible to the monks (picture above), where the tabot, a replica of the Ark of the Covenant was placed. We walked around the tabot area with our shoes off, admiring the old murals and tapestries, all of which we could touch and flash with our cameras.
One of the more significant monasteries, Kebran Gabriel, was our fourth and final holy site to visit of the day, although only half of us could see it; women are forbidden to enter. I'm guessing the reason was to keep the forty monks from forty unholy boners. Such a sacrifice is tame than what they used to do. In the 16th century, monks wore chainmail all day, all night, not as a form of armor, but as a self-torture device; in the day it gets extremely hot and at night it gets extremely cold. The suffering brought them closer to God, which is something to be said in an era of unholy boners.
While Kebran Gabriel's church design was more-or-less the same circular structure with a sacred tabot hidden in the middle away from mortals' eyes behind walls painted with murals depiciting stories of the Bible, the museum was the most impressive of all the museums of the day, mainly because the monk there was very knowledgeable with history -- and he spoke English. He showed us the 14th-century silver crosses designed in the styles of Gondor, Lalibela and Axum, ancient prayer scrolls and more ancient texts dating back to 1555 A.D. Touching the pages was allowed again; I suppose if you can't touch women on the island, you might as well touch 450-year-old books.
Women got their revenge (sort of) back on the mainland when Fred took Lishan to a local hairdresser in town. "You're not allowed in," Mulualem told him. "It's for women only."
I suppose in a town near a lake with sites sacred to men, women should have their sacred places too.
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