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Lake Tana Monasteries

by - September 28 2010

Beauty can get you a long way in life. If a pigeon or a seagull had jumped onto my plate and started eating my toast then I would drive it away. However when a group of brightly coloured tropical birds did the same, the correct response seemed to be to declare that the toast was theirs and reach for my camera.

After breakfast I set out on a boat trip to see the monasteries on the islands of lake Tana. Some of the monasteries are hundreds of years old, though most have now had their original straw roofs replaced with corrugated iron.

Each monastery consists of a set of fairly typical Ethiopian houses, and a beautifully muralled chapel. The murals were often very violent. One scene showed the Christian martyrs massacring non-Christians. Another showed in gruesome detail the means of death for each of the twelve apostles. Convention is that good guys are shown facing towards you and bad guys are shown looking sideways. The main mural was a comic-book-style depiction of the entire life of Jesus, with boxed scenes in their correct historical sequence. Notably Jesus, and indeed everyone else, is black.

One recurring figure is Belal the Cannibal. He supposedly killed and ate 72 people but went to heaven because he gave a cup of water to a girl when she asked in the name of the virgin Mary. I'm not sure I agree with the moral implications there.