Bahir Dar is a popular first stop on the northern circuit, situated 550km northwest of Addis Ababa along an asphalted road that can easily be covered in a day, and also connected to the capital by regular flights. It has a geographically poignant location on the southern shore of Lake Tana, adjacent to where the Blue Nile flows out of this vast inland sea to begin its 4,500km journey to the Mediterranean via Sudan and Egypt. With its neatly laid-out palm-shaded avenues, sticky tropical ambience, lush vegetation and conspicuous birdlife, Bahir Dar has little in common with other towns in northern Ethiopia, coming across more like a transplant from the southern Rift Valley.
Bahir Dar is the springboard for day trips to several other sites of interest associated with the lake and river, most notably the sporadically spectacular Blue Nile Falls 35km southeast of town, and the church of Ura Kidane Mihret, the most accessible of several beautiful historic monasteries studded around Tana’s peninsulas and islands.
Bahir Dar is essentially a 20th-century entity, but Lake Tana and its hinterland are steeped in history. The presence of an ancient Jewish sacrificial altar 40km northeast of Bahir Dar on Tana Chirkos, the monastic island after which the lake is named, suggests that the region was settled by the Beta Israel more than 2,000 years ago. More recently, between the late 13th and early 17th centuries, the Tana region was the political and spiritual focus of a succession of Ethiopian emperors, who established many temporary capitals on or near the lake. In the 16th century, the Tana region formed the central stage of the war between the Christian empire and Ahmed Gragn, and it is also where the Portuguese force led by Cristóvão da Gama spent most of its time in Ethiopia.
Many historic monasteries dotted around Lake Tana date from this pre-Gondarine period, among them Bahir Dar Giyorgis, after which the modern town is named. Some sources suggest that an important regional market was held close to Bahir Dar Giyorgis in the late 19th century, but when Arthur Hayes visited the site in 1903, urban development amounted to ‘two or three huts’ inhabited by Weyto villagers who lived on fish and hippopotamus meat. Bahir Dar was still little more than a village when the Italian army arrived there in April 1936, and set about developing the lakeshore site as a modern town centre, dividing it into commercial, residential, military and administrative zones.
The Italians also constructed roads connecting Bahir Dar to Dejen and Debre Markos, a port to handle motorboat services to Zege and Gorgora, and an airstrip to receive flights from Addis Ababa and Gondar. By the end of the 1930s, the town supported a population of around 25,000. After the end of the Italian occupation, the process of urbanisation continued, with the establishment of an imperial administrative office in 1941 and a revenue collection office a year later. In 1945, Bahir Dar was formally made a municipal area, albeit one still overshadowed politically and economically by Gondar and Debre Markos.
The primary stimulus for Bahir Dar’s rapid subsequent growth as a commercial and industrial centre was the construction of a hydro-electric plant at nearby Tis Abay in 1964. Indeed, it is said that Emperor Haile Selassie, who built a palace outside town in 1967, considered relocating the national capital to Bahir Dar at this time. To the surprise of many, Bahir Dar leapfrogged Gondar, Dessie and Debre Markos – the respective former administrative capitals of the defunct provinces of Gondar, Wollo and Gojjam – when a capital was selected for the redrawn Federal Region of Amhara in 1995.
Bahir Dar’s most obvious attraction is Lake Tana, whose southern shore can be explored along a 2km lakeshore footpath running northeast from the central Ghion Hotel or Kuriftu Resort to the suburban Tana Hotel. The birdlife along this footpath is exceptional – giant pelicans and herons on the water, gaudy turacos and barbets in the woodland – and you may also see the traditional tankwas (papyrus canoes) that used to be the main form of lake transport.
Bahir Dar Giyorgis
The town of Bahir Dar is named after the church of Bahir Dar Giyorgis (St George by the Sea), which boasts a prime lakeshore position on the northeast side of the main roundabout. Originally dedicated to Kiddist Maryam, the church was probably founded in the early 14th century by Emperor Amda Tsion, though one tradition credits it to the late 13th-century ruler Yakuno Amlak. The original building, or possibly a 16th-century facsimile dedicated to Giyorgis, was a thatched circular construction that stood in place until the late 1930s, when the Italians destroyed it due to its association with the anticolonial patriotic movement. Emperor Haile Selassie built an attractive and much larger domed church on the site in the 1960s. Of greater historical interest is a disused two-storey stone tower at the north end of the church compound. Architecturally reminiscent of the Gondarine palaces, this tower was most likely constructed during the reign of Susenyos with the assistance of the Jesuit priest Pedro Páez, though one improbable local tradition states it started life as the residence of Laike Maryam, the dignitary who oversaw the construction of the original church for Emperor Amba Seyon.
The Nile Bridge
Inaugurated by Emperor Haile Selassie in 1961, the 225m-long bridge that crosses the Blue Nile on the Gondar road about 2.5km northeast of the town centre offers a great view over the river just 3km south of its outlet from Lake Tana. The bridge is a good spot to look for hippos, which are most often seen partially submerged just to its south in the early morning or late afternoon. A wide variety of water and woodland birds are also likely to be seen, and possibly even the occasional crocodile.
Bahir Dar is a pleasant and attractive port, and its tourist amenities are among the best in the country. The lively market, pretty waterside setting and rewarding live music scene make it a thoroughly relaxed place to settle into for a few days.
Article By: Kaleab Ayenew