Every day I encountered him on the main street, a guy touting tours to the Siemień Mountains would exclaim: “You’re still here!”
At 2120 meters, it elated me to be back in Gondar (having first visited in 1994)
Now, the cool highland climate soothed me after a month of traveling through the blazing Sudanese summer.
An even greater gift – maybe – was the availability of alcohol.
Cold beer in copious amounts.
Boozy nights spent in seedy bars merged happily with a casual exploration of castle ruins and lazing around; I enjoyed Gondar and stayed for over 2 weeks.
History of Gondar
The castles and palaces of Gondar originate from the 17th and 18th centuries when the Ethiopian royal court established their capital here – before this Medieval tradition was one of roaming nomadic capitals (basically, setting up tents).
It’s thought that in 1696, Emperor Fasiladas settled on Gondar for its strategic location and fertile surrounding lands.
Caravans trading from Sudan and the Red Sea converged on and dispersed from the area.
Legend states they built Gondar in a place chosen by God, who pointed it out to Fasilidas, when he’d followed a buffalo there on a hunt.
These stone-built castles of Gondar are unique in Ethiopia.
For the first time, they used arches, vaulted construction and lime.
Well, we know Portugal had been expanding empire along the Swahili Coast of East Africa, and so they sent some Jesuit missionaries to Ethiopia, who then converted Gondar’s emperor to Catholicism (which caused some trouble; another story).
With these Portuguese influencers came artisans from colonies in India, who introduced new building materials and methods.
And although the Jesuits left, the Indian tradesmen remained to continue shaping Gondar’s castles and palaces.
Gondar remained the capital of Ethiopia until 1864.
Touring the Royal Enclosure of Ethiopia’s Gondar castles
The Royal Enclosure – a 900-meter-wall – contains castles that dominate the center of Gondar.
Constructed in the 17th century, the ‘Fasil Ghebbia’ and was the project of Emperor Fasilidas, and within its walls are most of the castles, churches, and palaces of Gondar’s past grandeur.
The oldest building is Enqualal Gemb – aka the “Egg Castle” because of the egg-shaped dome roof.
This is the most famous image of Gondar’s castles.
Perched at the top of this castle is the prayer room, offering 360-vistas of the surrounding city and hills.
Palace of Iyasu was built during the reign of Iysau I, from 1682 to 1706; and he’s considered the greatest ruler of the era.
“Iyasu Palace is renowned for its saddle shape and unusual vaulted ceilings, and was once adorned with shimmering Venetian glassware and gold-plated ivory artwork.”