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Lake Tana Island Monasteries and its Adjacent Wetland Natural and Cultural Heritages

Date of Submission: 06/08/2021
Criteria: (iii)(v)(vi)(x)
Category: Mixed
Submitted by:
Ministry of Culture and Tourism
State, Province or Region:
Coordinates: N11 56 59.34 E37 15 41.31
Ref.: 6580

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The Blue Nile and the Lake Tana, located in the North West highlands of Ethiopia in the Amara Regional State, have been a passion that has driven many explorers since historic times. In ancient Greece, the source of the Nile was considered as one of the earth’s most compelling mysteries. A Greek historian, Herodotus, wrote about the Nile extensively in 460 BC. He believed the river sprang from between two massive mountains. Likewise, Emperor Nero ordered his explorers to follow the Nile in search of its source. 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).

This Crater Lake situated at 1800m ASL, is believed to have originated during the Pliocene due to the volcanic blocking of the Blue Nile River. It is categorized as Oligotrophic that covers 3000-36000km2 areas with a maximum depth 15m, 84km long and 64km wide.

It is the largest fresh water lake in Ethiopia with catchment areas of 15321 km at its outlet and the third largest lake in the Nile Basin. The Lake and its basin comprise a full area of 15096 km2 (drainage pus Lake Tana area) of which the Lake area covers 3,050 km2. It accounts for 50 percent of the total inland area of Ethiopia that feeds the Abay River, which contributes 85% to the total flow of the Blue Nile. The lake is fed by more than 40 rivers and streams, but 93% of the water comes from four major rivers: Gilgal Abbay, Ribb, Gumara and Megech.

Lake Tana has been the political and spiritual centre of the Ethiopian Christian faith for many centuries. It is made up of 37 Islands, around 27 of which have monasteries, churches, and ruined of palaces which are the oldest age and considerable historical important. The impressive monasteries and churches located in spectacular aquatic landscapes are of great significance to the history of African structure. The remarkable elements of several stages of construction are outstanding examples of monastic architecture.

The imposing monasteries and their subsidiary establishments, which are protected by their inaccessibility except by water, have been ideal havens for Ethiopian cultural treasure since the 13th the century. Remains of ancient Ethiopian emperors and invaluable treasures are kept in these island monasteries . Many of the earliest manuscripts, artifacts and ecclesiastical objects as well as the remains of ancient Ethiopian emperors and their treasures were housed in the following island monasteries of remaining there for centuries safely.

Tana Qirqos

Tana Qirqos is one of the Islands of Lake Tana, located in the eastern part of the Lake, near the mouth of the Gumara River. This homonymous island boasts as one of the oldest Judaic religious establishments in Ethiopia. According to legends, the Ark of the Covenant had been brought to Ethiopia by Menelik I, placed at Tana Qiros and remained there for about six hundred years before it was taken to Mary Tsion church in Aksum. The presence of sacred objects in the area are testified the allegation. An elaborated altar for animal sacrifice stands on the premise of the present monastery of Tana Qirqos. There is also an iron handle of the switch, which the priests of the old Hebrew religion in the pre Christian times used to sprinkle people with blood sacrifice.

Legends say that the Virgin Mary say on a large boulder that stands on the top of the rock wall while she was on her flight from Palestine to Egypt she stayed on the Island for three months and Ten days.

Tana Qirqos is also one of the first sites of Christianity in Ethiopia. The first Christian church is said to have been founded on the Island by Abrha-Atsebha, two kings, who reigned during the time of Ethiopian conversion to Christianity in the fourth century.

The present monastery, rectangular in plan, stands in the middle of the Island. This magnificent monastery constructed in the name of Qirqos, the first martyr in the Christian religion, is built of rock and mortar with arches surrounded it and supporting the roof. All the wood work is massive, and huge doors are made of plank out of Warka, fig trees, are the oldest and the finest timber structures surviving in the nation.

Dabra Sina Maryam

The Church of Dabre Sina Maryam located in located on the Eastern Shore of the Gorgora Peninsula, is one of the earliest and most beautiful round churches in Ethiopia. The monastery primes lies in the grove of olive and eucalyptus trees to the eastern harbour is round plan following the vernacular structure. It is built of wood, mud and mortar, plaster with thatched roof. Its walls, decorated with ornate murals, better preserved and older than those found to the south of the lake. The wall paintings decorating the church are artistically outstanding and constitute the only example of a complete and largely preserved set of the early modern period scenic wall painting in Ethiopia.

 Zege Pisula

The Zege penisula attached to a dry land on its western part is located on the southern shore of the lake. The Peninsula covered with densest forest, is home to seven magnificent monasteries known as the seven stars. These monasteries named after their founders are Hirut Amlak of Daga Estifanos, Yohannes of Keberan Gebreal, Betre Maryam of Ura kidane Mihret, Zecharias of Bahre Gelila, Yasaye of Manendeaba Medhanealem, Afkren Egzi of Gugubie and Tadiwos of Debre Maryam.

The Zege Penisula monasteries reflect the native building tradition in their round shape, materials and building techniques. Each one consists of three parts: the inner sanctuary, the inner ambulatory and the outer ambulatory. The outside walls of the sanctuary are ornamented with magnificent paintings.

Dek Isand

Dek is one of the largest Islands of Lake Tana, located in an upraised conical shaped hill rising from the Lake. The forest clad cone, raising the water is one of the most prominent features of Deq Island. The monastery of Narga Selassie, hidden in the forest clad is one of the most prominent monasteries in the Lake Tana region. It was built in the thirteenth century and served as custodian of Ethiopian Cultural Heritages since its establishment. Many of the early manuscripts, ecclesiastic objects as well as jewelleries of mediaeval kings have housed in the library of the monastery for centuries. Remains of ancient Ethiopian emperors and invaluable treasures are also kept in this imposing monastery. The Island of Deq was the political and spiritual center of the Christian empire during the mediaeval periods. The 14th century ruined palace and Water gates, build of rock and lime mortar is in a wonderful state of preservation considering that it had stood nearly for six centuries. All these churches and monasteries have an indispensable role for the preservation of religious culture and historical heritages.

Alata Bridge

The Alata Bridge known as Yefasil Dilidy (Bridge of Fasilades), is one of the cultural heritages located around Lake Tana. This bridge is the first stone bridge built with mortar. It is supported by eight arches and has an overall length about 64 m and 2 m width. The bridge built of lime mortar and rocks, is supported by eight arches. Two big arches span the main channel, supported by a square pier in the middle which has its base in the river bed. There are 6 smaller arches designed to deal with floods.

Natural Heritages

Equally important are the natural heritage preserves in the Lake Tana and its adjacent wetlands. The lake is surrounded by low plains in the north (Dembea), east (Fogera) and southwest (Kunzila) that are often flooded in the rainy season, formed Wetlands all around the lake. These Wetlands, which are the largest Wetland in the country, provide sanctuary to wider varieties of flora and fauna, many of which are endemic species. It serves as a nursery for most of the fish population in the lake, and a breeding ground for waterfowl and mammals. Most probably, about half of the Labeobarbus species and certainly three other commercially important fish species, Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus), African catfish (Clarias gariepinus) and Beso (Varicorhinus beso) spawn here and their juveniles feed and grow here during the first years of their life. A quarter the nearly 65 fish species are endemic.

The littoral region of the eastern and southern part of the lake is dominated by papyrus reed (Cyperus papyrus), common cattail (Typha latifolia) and common reed (Phragmites karka), whereas Persicaria senegalensis, hippo grass (Vossia spp.),bullrush (Scirpus spp.) and Nymphaea lotus are common. The watershed of the Blue Nile from the outlet of Lake to the Tis Abbay Falls is glaring spot of the site that is protected as a river side area.

Birds, Reptiles and Mammals

Lake Tana and its wetlands are also rich in bird life, in total ca 215 bird species were observed of which ca 83 typical wetland species Piscivorous species include residents such as African spoonbill (Platalea alba), yellow-billed stork (Mycteria ibis), pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis), giant kingfisher (Megaceryle maxima),little grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis), great white pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus), great and long-tailed cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo, and P. africanus), African darter (Anhinga rufa), many species of herons (Ardeola spp., Egretta spp., and Ardea spp.), and African fish eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer), Grey crowned crane (Balearica regulorum), common crane (Grus grus), greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber), African open-billed stork (Anastomus lamelligerus), woolly-necked stork (Ciconia episcopus), sacred ibis (Threskiornis aethiopica), glossy ibes (Plegadis falcinellus), Hadada ibis (Bostrychia rara), hamerkop (Scopus umbretta), Egyptian goose (Alopochen aegypticus), spur-winged goose (Plectropterus gambensis) and the African pygmy goose (Nettapus auritus) are the most conspicuous non-piscivorous aquatic birds. Palaearctic migrants include osprey (Pandion haliaetus), great blackheaded, lesser black-backed and herring gulls (Larus ichthyaetus, L. fuscus, and L. argentatus), and whiskered and white-winged black terns (Chlidonias hybridus and C. leucopterus). 

Generally 217 bird species found in the Lake of which some of them such as the Yellow-fronted Parrot (Poicephalus flavifrons), the White-cheeked Turaco (Tauraco leucotis) and Banded Barbet (Lybius undatus) are endemic to Ethiopia. The greatest reptiles are the Nile Lizard (Varanus niloticus) and a python (Python sebae) of which the latter is rare. On that point are also few aquatic mammals such as Hippopotami, mainly restricted to the river mouth of the Blue Nile.

Subsequently the lake and its surrounding wetland areas are listed as the top 250 Lake regions of global importance for biodiversity and registered by UNESCO in June 2015 as a Biosphere Reserve site. Lake Tana and its associated wetlands provide habitats for endemic birds, biome assemblages and globally threatened birds as well as for large proportion of waterfowl congregations.

The Blue Nile Falls

The Blue Nile Falls lies 35 km from the lake, where the Nile waters plunge over 45m cliff, is one of the most beautiful water falls in the world, spread like a panorama. It is known as Tis Abay. The word Tis Abay is a derivate from the Amharic words for the ‘Nile that smokes’ the name coming from the resemblance which the mist rising from the big fall bears to smock, especially in the early morning, when it is visible for a long distance. The falls are formed by a barrier of lava rock running due north south a right angles to and across the river course with a cliff face on the downstream side, giving a sheer falls estimated to be between 39 to 45 meters high, consisting of four separate falls that originally varied from a trickle in the dry season to over 40m wide in the rain season.

Starting from the right bank ,the first fall, which is close to the banks, is the highest of the four, as it takes the plunge into the gully, is one leap of 150 feet. The second fall is divided from it by a bush-covered rock mound the main fall, which extends from near the centre of precipice up to the left bank of the river. This has one fine cascade that carries most of the water in the dry season, but when the fall extent of the main fall its discharge it is the truly grand and awe-inspiring spectacle. The mist and water droplet catch sunlight splitting it into a rainbow. Thus, over a thousand years, this natural phenomenon displayed scenic delighted for natural lovers. 

Besides to this, the Blue Nile leaves Lake Tana and drains for around 35 km through papyrus thickets and fields before plunging over a sheer chasm cascading 45m falls. The water shed of the Blue Nile from the outlet of Lake to the Tis Abbay Falls has been designated as a national park in 2008. The park known as the Blue Nile Riverside Park comprises an area of about 4000 ha. hosts a wide verity of unique animal and plant species

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Criterion (iii): The Lake Tana Island Monasteries incorporates the largest clusters of architectural ensembles in the world, illustrating the development of church design over 700 years. The wall painting decorating the monasteries, constitutes the only example of a complete and largely preserved set of the early modern period scenic wall painting in Africa, are of great significance to the art of history.

Criterion (v): The Lake Tana and its adjacent Wetland is an outstanding example of human use of the aquatic landscape where human and nature have been living in harmony since time began at Lake Tana to the present day. Farming practices and land management system reflect centuries of tradition which survive to the present day.

Criterion (vi): The Lake Tana Island Monasteries provide an exceptional testimony to the civilization of medieval Ethiopia, from its inception of the introduction of Christianity in the region in the 4th century AD, to the present day. The inaccessibility of the Islands except by water merited the monasteries to be the political and spiritual centre of the Mediaeval Ethiopian Empire and to continue their spiritual function up to the present day.

Criterion (x): The property provide a sanctuary to wider varieties of flora and fauna, many of which are endemic species found nowhere else in the world. The biodiversity diversities of the lake include threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The proposed boundaries of the Island monasteries and its adjacent wetland include all the attributes of Outstanding Universal Value. The integrity of the aquatic landscape has been maintained under the direct jurisdiction of Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church and the Amara Regional state. Since 2015 Lake Tana and its adjacent wetland has registered as a Biosphere Reserve site by UNESCO. The water shed of the Blue Nile from the outlet of Lake to the Tis Abbay Falls has been designated as the Blue Nile Riverside Park since 2008. Thus, the physical fabrics of the property have not suffered from the adverse effects of development. The ecclesiastical treasures retained by the churches, are authentic ritual objects and represent an outstanding collection of religious art and artefacts.

The spectacular natural aquatic landscape and its Island monasteries are well preserved sites uphold a high level of authenticity in their present state. The imposing monasteries their subsidiary establishments retain their original form, design and materials, in their original setting, with few subsequent alterations. The use and function of the religious monuments have survived unchanged and follow the traditions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which are thought to preserve the oldest Christian liturgical music. The spirit and feeling of the aquatic landscape survives from the establishment of Christianity in the area and it became a hub of religious and spiritual devotion.

Comparison with other similar properties

There are several Island Lakes, aquatic landscape and monastic architecture inscribed as World Heritage, some of these being the Rock Islands Southern Lagoon (Palau), the Lagoons of New Caledonia: Reef Diversity and Associated Ecosystems (France), Kenya Lake System in the Great Rift Valley (Kenya), Lake Turkana National Parks, (Kenya) and Lake Malawi National Park (Malawi). The Monastic Island of Reichenau (Germany), the Fasil Ginb( Ethiopia)

 The Rock Islands Southern Lagoon is a mixed site and consists of numerous forested limestone islands within a marine lagoon supporting rich biodiversity. The Lagoons of New Caledonia represent diversity of coral reefs and associated ecosystems. The Kenya Lake system comprises of 3 interlinked alkaline shallow lakes and supports some of the highest bird diversities in the world, including many endangered species. Lake Turkana comprises the largest saline desert lake in the world surrounded by an arid landscape often devoid of life but serves as a stopover for migratory birds and as major breeding grounds for the Nile crocodile, hippopotamus and a variety of venomous snakes. Lake Malawi with its deep clean waters is renowned for its fish biodiversity.

The Fasil Gibi of Gondar represents a master piece of vernacular architecture and fine arts of painting.

The Lake Tana Islands and its adjacent Wetland shares some attributes with each but in itself presents a unique case, as the source of the Nile, the longest river basin in the world and the largest ground of intra African migratory birds. It provides sanctuary to wider varieties of flora and fauna, many of which are endemic species. The Lake holds nearly 65 fish species and of which 15 of them is endemic. The propose heritage and its associated Wetland also holds a minimum of 20,000 water birds colonies of 217 bird species.

 Apart from its amazing biodiversity, Lake Tana Islands and its adjacent Wetland site is unique in its aesthetic and rich cultural heritage. It has been serving as the political and spiritual center of the Ethiopian Christian Empire for centuries. During the mediaeval periods the Island monasteries of Lake Tana were the political and spiritual center of the Christian empire. It used as a place of safe haven for Christian people during the time of adversity .Remains of ancient Ethiopian emperors and invaluable treasures are kept in the island monasteries.

The island monasteries of situated on the aquatic land scape and the water gates have their own buildings techniques and styles. It is also a unique contributor to religious syncrism as a global phenomenon. The Ethiopian Orthodox Christian church has been thoroughly indigenized in the course of a nearly two thousand years long history of Christianity, attained the status of known as Ethiopianism, which is almost accepted as a contribution to the African cultural nationalism and particularly based on a self-conscious cultivation of African indigenous values and attitude.