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Gondar: Ethiopia’s Castles in the Highlands

Travel Ethiopia- Gondar
Emperor Fasilidas’ Castle from the 16th century

Claire A Davies
Follow the writer on twitter : @dispatchesfrom1
November 26, 2019

First impressions of Gondar give a sentinel moment: a vision of a town poured into the bowl of a valley crowned by the ridges and escarpments of the Simien Mountains.   It was easy to see why Emperor Fasilidas had decided to settle his nomadic army here back in the 16th Century.  

This remote highland town reigned as Ethiopia’s capital for almost three hundred years under the thousand year dynasty of Emperors descended from King Solomon.  Gondar signified a highly strategic location. Contained by mountains on three sides, it has far-reaching views towards Lake Tana and was close to trading routes to Port Sudan and Massawa. There was also access to water tumbling down from the Simien mountains into the Angereb river.  Successive generations of rulers expanded the original castle until the 19th Century when Gondar fell into decline as a centre of rule.  

While many royal buildings remain, elements of history still run through the atmosphere of the town.  People walk upright, a certain pride running through their blood. Modernisation has meant an influx of new buildings, in contrast to people who still cling to traditional ways of life, driving  sheep across the road or pedalling ancient sewing machines in shop doorways.  

The town’s lively streets mean that the place has a certain reputation amongst other Ethiopians as being somewhat wild or remote.  This translates to a place of curious, friendly and somewhat cheeky people with a profound sense of identity.

 Find someone to take you under their wing (there is no shortage of offers) to show you the main tourist sites but also to explore beneath the surface. Many people just pass through for a night on their way to trek the Simien Mountains but Gondar is well worth three days to explore, in fact it needs time to allow the atmosphere to sink in and appreciate the place.

What to see

Piassa marks the centre of town.  This three-road intersection is crowned with a statue of Emperor Fasil himself, only a stones’ throw away from his palace.  

The Piassa itself is interesting both for its Italianate architecture, and for observing the bustle of daily life from shoe shiners, hawkers and the distinctive blue bajaj (tuk-tuks) circling around.    Gondar was occupied, briefly, by the Italians in the years 1936 until 1941, who even made it their own capital, before the rebellious Gondaray drove them out.   

Mussolini had grand visions for Gondar, desiring to make it “a civilisation worth of Rome”.  Thus, the town still contains many buildings in the fascist style, built to reflect the absolute authority and order which Mussolini wished to imposed.   The huge, flat fronted façade of the post office, still dominates, however the overall effect of these buildings is softened by an ochre wash creating a sense of warmth.

The Royal Enclosure is just a few minutes away from PiassaSurrounded by jacaranda trees, the large walled grassy compound contains seven different castles, each built by successive kings and each with a variation of styles according to the external influences of the times.  Moorish, Portuguese and Indian influences are visible amongst the domed towers, arched windows and crenellated walls.   

The compound itself contains twelve gates to signify the twelve apostles as well as churches and banqueting halls.  

A visit to the whole castle compound can take a half or full day depending on your level of interest. 

Travel Ethiopia _ Gondar _ Debre Birhan church painting
Photo credit : Claire A Davies 

Debre Birhan is one of Ethiopia’s most famous churches.  According to legend, Gondar was once raided by dervishes from Sudan.  Destroying all the churches in their path, the dervishes were repelled by the power radiating from Debre Birhan, thus the church is reputed to have special religious power. 

The church grounds are extremely peaceful to visit, the silence only broken by the sound of turtle doves and people uttering prayers in the shade of juniper and olive trees.  

Inside, the inner chamber, guarded by watchful priests, holds the famous ceiling painted with Ethiopian angels, looking down on the faithful.  It is said that each angel is looking in a different direction so that they might see all over the world.  

Fasilidas’ Baths  is a short bajaj ride away from the centre of town.  A large pool lies empty most of the year but it’s still a pleasant spot to wander around and scramble over giant tree roots.  Once a year, the baths are filled with water for the festival of Timkat or Ephiphany, when the whole city fills with pilgrims dressed in white (as well as tourists).

Qusquam’s Palace is in the countryside just outside of town, reached by a cobbled road.  Built as the home and church of the influential Queen Mentewab, the palace was partially destroyed by Sudanese invaders in the 1800s but rebuilt by Emperor Haile Selassie.   

An ancient gatekeeper will hand write your entrance ticket like a scribe.You can still see the queen’s huge bed made with leather straps and a glass topped coffin containing her bones.   

 The newly-opened castle of Ras Ghimb also now hosts a small museum in the centre of town, although it has a gruesome more recently history as being one of the torture chambers of the Derg regime.

Getting there

Gondar is just one hour by air from Addis (flights at least daily with Ethiopian airlines) or else 1 day by road via private air-con buses.  If you have time, hire a driver and stop to appreciate the 2500 metre gorge spanning the Blue Nile en route.  

Claire A Davies

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