The Blue Nile pours out of Ethiopia’s Lake Tana as a gentle bubbling stream. Around is an ancient land with life-giving waters.
If one needs to be transported to biblical times, the time machine to do so resides on the banks of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. This ancient land of many cultures and religions has resisted modernity, leaving many of its traditions intact, as I witnessed traveling through the historic Christian circuit of Ethiopia.
The mysterious Nile was long-hidden from Western geographers and explorers. It was not until the expeditions of such great travelers as Bruce, Burton, and Speke in the 18th century that the origins were confirmed: the White Nile originates in East Africa’s Lake Victoria, while the Blue Nile pours out of Ethiopia’s Lake Tana.
It merges with the smaller tributary, the White Nile, at Khartoum, Sudan, to form the mighty Nile River.
The Blue Nile was responsible for the annual floods that contributed to the fertility of the Nile Valley and subsequent rise of the Egyptian civilization. This ended with the construction of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s in Egypt.
For my exploration, I started in Addis Ababa and flew into Bahir Dar, a clean, safe and well-maintained city (by African standards) and the closest approach to the Blue Nile.
It offers access to more than 20 of the world’s oldest monastic churches that date back to the 14th century, located on the peninsulas and islands of Lake Tana. I hired a boat that regularly plies Lake Tana to visit many of its churches and small villages.
I was quite surprised to see locals operating papyrus boats (tankwas) that have been in use since the 9th century BC, either to fish or transport firewood across the lake. The only other place where I have seen papyrus boats still in use was in Lake Titicaca, Bolivia.
My biblical adventure took me first to the magnificent 14th century Ura Kidane Mehret church decorated with its astoundingly beautiful murals painted more than 250 years ago.
From a rather humble building, some of Ethiopia’s fabled treasures were revealed to me by a priest of the church: ancient parchment books from the 9th century, jewel-studded crowns of emperors, historic battle implements and the mummified remains of 14 of Ethiopia’s most revered emperors.
I was quite surprised at the poor quality of the storage cabinets and an absolute lack of proper security for such priceless treasures.
It barely took a five-minute drive from the lakeside town of Bahir Dar to reach the spot where the Blue Nile flows out of Lake Tana as a gentle bubbling stream. But driving further downstream for about 40 kilometers, the power of the first cataract of the Blue Nile can be appreciated at Tis-Isat village. The village is a market settlement of the Amhara people who have inhabited this area for over 2,000 years, farming crops like wheat, sorghum and teff (from which injera, the delicious national bread, is made).
The footpath leaving the village meanders first beside fertile open fields, then drops into a deep basaltic rift. After about a 30-minute walk, a stiff climb up a grassy hillside is rewarded by a magnificent view of the falls, breaking the smooth edge of the rolling river into a thundering cataract of foaming white water.
The approach to the falls was surreal with cowherds playing the flute and local women gathering water from the river in ceramic amphoras (ancient jugs) – scenes that were truly biblical. The Tis-Isat falls had been one of Ethiopia’s major tourist attractions until a decade ago.
Little did I realize that what I saw, despite being impressive, was a far cry from its gloried past. Since 2003, a giant hydroelectric power project has reduced the giant half mile wide water curtain to a mere third of its size. Even though there were many gorges nearby to install a power plant, the government decided on this easier location which has unfortunately affected fish farming in Lake Tana and tourism in the area.
Unlike some of the great falls of the world – Niagara, Victoria and Iguaçu – with endless hotels and tourist offerings nearby, the falls of the Blue Nile are located in a pastoral and primal setting that should showcase its natural might, but it’s being slowly being dammed into silence. Many young rural women and some men in the area sport tattoos of traditional designs, which are as diverse as Ethiopian society, usually indicating the bearer’s cultural, religious and ethnic background.
Traditional tattoos have many forms — from rows of blue or black lines from chin to chest, dots on the forehead to crucifixes or crescents on the back of the hand and tattoos designed to darken pinkish gums.
Meran Kabede, a young lady in her 20s peered through my car window, as I was taking photos of her tattoos. “I am ashamed of my tattoos. My mother told me that it would beautify me but my friends in Bahir Dar tell me that it’s a sign of backwardness and ignorance,” she said in halting English. While I appreciated the beautiful and unique facial decorations, I could very well see her desire to shed her rural identity for more modern times.
Not much has changed along the river bank over the centuries; donkey carts transport goods inland while papyrus and dugout boats carry people across the different villages lining the river.
One man, carrying an ancient firearm on his shoulder, claimed to be protecting himself from any number of ethnic conflicts that could arise. The Eritrean, Somali, South Sudan and Kenyan border areas have always been areas of unrest. In fact, I was fully escorted by a Kalashnikov-toting soldier for my tour of the highlands near the Eritrean border.
This ancient land with life-giving waters, in an otherwise parched landscape is both a blessing and curse for Ethiopia. The sharing of the Nile waters has become a contentious issue in Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia where the population explosion has put pressure on water consumption. It is often said that the world’s next war will be fought over water and there are few places as tense as along the river Nile.