castles of gondar ethiopia

Gondar – Ethiopia’s Camelot of Castles

2013

Every day I encountered him on the main street, a guy touting tours to the Siemen Mountains would exclaim: “You’re still here!”

Yeah.

I was elated to be back in Gondar – having first visited in 1994; and now, the highland climate soothed me with such relief after traveling the blazing desert summer of Sudan.

Sitting at 2120 meters, I was delighted to wander Gondar amid the rainy season’s daily downpour.

An even greater gift – maybe – was the availability of alcohol.

Cold beer in copious amounts.

Boozy nights spent in seedy bars merged happily with casual exploration of castle ruins and lazing around; I enjoyed Gondar, and stayed over 2 weeks.

royal enclosure gondar castles ethiopia
Royal enclosure interior showing some of the Gondar castles and palaces in northern Ethiopia.

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.

Furthermore, caravans trading from Sudan and the Red Sea converged on and dispersed from the area.

Although, legend states that it was built in a place chosen by God, who pointed it out to Fasilidas, who had followed a buffalo there when hunting.

These stone-built castles of Gondar (also spelt: Gonder) are unique in Ethiopia.

For the first time arches, vaulted construction and the use of lime were used.

 Enqualal Gemb - aka the “Egg Castle”
Gondar Ethiopia

But how?

Well, we know that 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 were later forced to leave, the Indian tradesmen remained to continue shaping Gondar’s castles and palaces.

Gondar remained the capital of Ethiopia until 1864.

gondar ethiopia - castles and downtown city from  hill top view
Gondar Ethiopia today. Looking to the castles of the Royal Enclosure and downtown Gondar, which still shows the Italian Fascist occupation of the late 1930s, with the main piazza featuring shops, a cinema, and other public buildings in the Italian Moderne style.

Touring the Royal Enclosure of Ethiopia’s Gondar castles

The Royal Enclosure – a 900-meter-wall – contains castles that dominate the center of Gondar.

This compound is also known as ‘Fasil Ghebbia’ and was constructed in the 17th century by Emperor Fasilidas. Within its walls are most of the castles, churches and palaces of Gondar’s past grandeur.

The oldest building on site is Enqualal Gemb – aka the “Egg Castle” due to the egg-shaped dome roof.

Built for Emperor Fasilidas, 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.

Enqualal Gemb castle gondar ethiopia
Enqualal Gemb – aka the “Egg Castle” at Gondar Ethiopia.

Palace of Iyasu was built during the reign of Iysau I, from 1682-1706; 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.”

SOURCE: https://www.brilliant-ethiopia.com/fasil-ghebbi

However, an earthquake in 1704 caused damage and later a British bombing mission (against the Fascist Italian forces in WWII) reduced it to hollow walls.

Other notable structures inside Gondar’s Royal Enclosure are the Banquet Hall + Granary; Dawit’s Hall; Mentewab’s Castle + Atatami Mikael.

Opening hours: Everyday, 8:30 – 17:30
Admission price: Around $10
Duration of visit: 1 – 2 hours

Images of Castles in the Royal enclosure at Gondar's World Heritage Site in Ethiopia.
Castles within the Royal enclosure at Gondar’s World Heritage Site in Northern Ethiopia.

Washing in Fasiladas’ Bath (if you can)

It’s a big bath.

Sufficient for a more than a few friends.

On this day, it’s quiet and serene.

The castle walls of the enclosure are strangled by the roots of ancient trees (much like some temples at Angkor in Cambodia).

walls strangled by trees at fasiladas bath gonder castles ethiopia
Walls strangled by trees at Fasiladas’ Bath in Gondar.

The best to visit is at Timkat on 19th January – if you want to witness it ‘alive’ with thousands of pilgrims exuding religious zeal.

For this is one of Ethiopia’s most sacred sites and on this day the bath is filled, symbolizing Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan.

CENTER: Zobel’s Mausoleum was built decades after the bath complex by Emperor Yohannes I – in honor of his favorite horse, which saved his life when he fled – injured – to escape from bandits. And there’s other stories. The horse is entombed here.

[ I was upfront at Timkat aka the Epiphany ceremony in Asmara in Eritrea in 1995. Intense. Definitely check it out! ]

Visiting the Debre Birhan Selassie Church

Debre Birhan Selassie is the only church in Gondar that escaped destruction from the invading Sudanese Mahdists in the late 19th century.

Saved – apparently, by a swarm of bees!

debre birhan selassie church gondar ethiopia
Debre Birhan Selassie Church in Gondar Ethiopia.

Like much of old Gondar, the church was founded in the 1690s and is famous for its interior murals (see photos below).

RULES OF ENTRY to Debra Birhan Selassie (as stated outside) – all which seemed normal, until I read the last rule:

  • Flashlight, chewing gum wearing shoe or cape is forbidden
  • Only the first section of the church is allowed to visit
  • The West gate is reserved for men and the South-West Gate for female.
  • If you have a scarf, is all advisable to put over your head for ladies
  • As per the church’s rule you are advised not to go inside if you were slept with your spouse yesterday and during menstruation period for ladies.
TOP LEFT: The tower gate entrance to Debre Birhan Selassie Church in Gondar. This gate is the 13th tower of the surrounding wall and it represents Christ (the other 12 wall towers are the Apostles). OTHERS: Interior of church. including ‘Saint George slaying the dragon’ and a ceiling of cherubs.

Exploring the hill-top ruins at Kusquam Maryam

These ruins have great vibes and views.

This palace was the out-of-town residence of Queen Mentewab (a lady renown for her beauty; as her name translates).

ruins at Kusquam Maryam gonder castle images ethiopia
Ruins at Kusquam Maryam.

It was here that the 18th century Scottish explorer James Bruce spent several “sociable” months awaiting permission to visit the Blue Nile Falls and the source of the Nile River at Lake Tana.

bones of queen gonder castles ethiopia
Bones of the Queen or priests or ?

Today, there’s a monastery inside, and a settlement of simple conical-roofed huts below the castle walls where male students of religion reside.

Getting there is best done by tut-tuk as its about 5 km away, and walk back downhill to Gondar.

images of castles of gondar ethiopia
Walls of the hill-top ruins at Kuqsuam Maryam outside of Gondar.

Wandering around Gondar Ethiopia

Gondar is safe.

Some days, I wandered aimlessly for hours.

Amid busy markets and excited shouts, invited inside for coffee by women, endlessly photographing smiling kids playing in the streets.

woman making traditional coffee in gondar ethiopia
Ethiopian’s take their coffee seriously (after all, Ethiopia is the original home of coffee). With grass spread on the floor and smoking frankincense or pine gum lit, the small table is piled with cups, saucers and a bowl of sugar. Then comes the roasting of fresh beans, grinding them and them brewing the coffee, pouring and re-pouring from an earthen jug. The whole process takes 20-30 minutes but it’s very enjoyable to watch this ‘coffee ceremony’, savouring the aromas and taste. NOTE: this a process the women do at least daily; it’s not a tourist show but a tradition of Ethiopia.

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