Adventures in Ethiopia's Old Capital, Gondar
“How was your stay in Ethiopia?’ a colleague inquires.
“Amazing,” I respond, “Did you know they have loads of medieval style castles?”
“Yeah, you mean like Queen of Sheba’s right?” She asks.
“No,” I respond, “Like several royal dynasties after the Queen of Sheba and the country is filled with castles from the 16th and 17th century to modern historical time."
No other city speaks to this more than Gondar (sometimes spelt Gonder), Gondar served as the capital of Ethiopia from c.1636 to 1855, and today is home to not only Gondar castle (also known as Fasiladas castle), but several other castles, churches, monasteries and royal buildings constructed by Fasiladas’ successors.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the fortress-city of Fasil Ghebbi was the residence of the Ethiopian emperor Fasilides and his successors. Surrounded by a 900-m-long wall, the city contains palaces, churches, monasteries and unique public and private buildings marked by Hindu and Arab influences, subsequently transformed by the Baroque style brought to Gondar by the Jesuit missionaries.
A tuktuk ride off lies Fasiladas’ Bath, which has been attributed to both Fasiladas and Iyasu I. The large rectangular pool is overlooked by a charming building, thought by some to be a vacation home. It’s a beautiful and peaceful spot, where snakelike tree roots digest sections of the stone walls.
The complex was used for swimming (royalty used to don inflated goat-skin life jackets for their refreshing dips!), it was likely to have been constructed for religious celebrations, the likes of which still go on today. Once a year, it’s filled with water for the Timkat celebration. After the water is blessed by the bishop, the pool becomes a riot of splashing water, shouts and laughter as a crowd of hundreds jumps in. The ceremony replicates Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River and is seen as an important renewal of faith.
On the day I visited the baths however, I was lucky to bump into Ethiopian teenagers shooting a traditional music video at the baths! Quite the treat.
How to spend 24 hours in Gondar:
Take an Ethiopian Airlines flight (hat tip, if you book via their app you get a discount) into Bahir Dar and drive 185 KM to Gondar City. I advise that you spend a day in Bahir Dar, details here on why. Gondar was the capital of the kingdom of Abyssinia under the reign of Emperor Fasil (Fasiledes) who built castles, churches and medieval style bathrooms in the 17th c. For 200 years it was the imperial residence and met both the relative greatness of the early emperors as the decline of their past. In the mid-nineteenth century the emperor Teodoros burned the city. Visit the Church of Debre Berhan Selassie, one of Ethiopia's most famous and filled with paintings on the ceiling of Ethiopian cherubs.
Enjoy a break at the little roadside coffee stalls or watch colourful horse drawn carts and tuk tuks zoom around the quaint medieval town.
Where to stay: Look out for the new Gondar Hills Resort
Where to eat: The Four Sisters