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