Gondar: Ethiopia’s Camelot

The road north from Lake Tana, Ethiopia, gradually ascends into the mountains. The landscape grows greener and the farms look richer here.

The combination of rough mountains and good farmland made it an obvious place for a capital city, and for many years it was. Gondar is nestled in a mountain-ringed valley at 2133 meters (6,998 ft.) altitude and is free from the malaria that plagues the Lake Tana region. It appeared so attractive that the Emperor Fasilidas moved from Lake Tana and made Gondar his capital in 1635. He built the impressive castle pictured to the right and gathered his court and supporters around him.

If the castle looks a bit European, that’s because Fasilidas took his inspiration from the Portuguese. A group of Portuguese adventurers had helped his father, Susneyos, defeat the Muslim conqueror Ahmed Gragn. Susneyos converted to Catholicism and tried to convert his subjects too, but the Ethiopian Orthodox faith was too strong for such a change. When Fasilidas came to the throne he quickly reconverted everyone back to the traditional church and ejected the Portuguese. This didn’t stop him from learning a thing or two from the Europeans, however, castle architecture being one of them.

Gondar makes a good rest stop after a few days of driving. The mountain breeze is cool and refreshing. The Italians liked it too, and during their brief occupation of the country from 1936-1941 they built an attractive European-style downtown that still retains some faded glory.

%Gallery-87470%Gondar is a place of song. The town’s many churches broadcast prayers and hymns over loudspeakers from the early morning until late at night. While this is common practice across Ethiopia, here the prayers bounce off the slopes and echo across the valley. They are especially audible at the palace complex, where Fasilidas built his castle and his successors vied with each other to make their own mark on history. There are a total of six castles by six different kings, built during Gondar’s 280 year run as the empire’s capital. The entire complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

While that of Fasilidas is the most imposing, each castle has its own distinctive style. A walk around the grounds is best done in a leisurely manner, and some castles offer fine views from the upper windows and battlements, although it takes some convincing to get the guards to let you up there!

Two related sights nearby should not be missed. One is the “Bath” of Fasilidas, actually a giant baptismal font for his famous mass reconversion. Usually it’s left empty, but for Timkat, the celebration of Epiphany, it’s filled with water and the faithful gather around, dressed in white and carrying candles.

The other sight is the Trinity Church built by the Emperor Iyasu in 1674. Of the 44 churches in Gondar, this is the only one to survive the attack of the Mahdi’s forces from the Sudan in 1888. It is said that the bees kept in the orchard on the church grounds swarmed against the Muslim looters and stung them so badly that they fled. The soldiers tried several times to burn the church, but each time they were driven off by angry bees.

However the church was saved, every visitor is grateful that it was. The interior is filled with elegant paintings of miracles and Bible scenes. Even the ceiling is covered in art. Winged angel heads are painted in neat rows along and between the roof beams. They look in every direction, a symbol of God being able to see everything at once.

If he has an eye for beauty, he must be looking at Gondar a lot.

Coming up next: Ethiopia’s wonderful children!

You can read the rest of the Ethiopia series here.