The history of Gondar, complete with fairy-tale castles.
Grand castles, strangely reminiscent of medieval Europe, hide behind thick walls in Ethiopia’s northwestern region. At first glance, only shadows of a past culture linger in this section of the ancient city of Gondar. Yet the castle compound offers a curious, however quiet, addition to the otherwise lively town surrounding it. Transformed by many hands throughout its history, Gondar — nicknamed the “Camelot of Africa” — stands asa beacon of Ethiopia’s bygone age, from royal and religious roots to cultural crossings and clashes.
Wedged between rich natural resources, access to the Red Sea, and powerful neighbors such as Sudan and Egypt, Gondar found its ideal location in the foothills of the Simien Mountains. This, paired with an elevation that repelled mosquitos and thus malaria, made it the perfect spot for a major city center. Yet founding a permanent city at this time was unusual for Ethiopian rulers, who tended to move their royal camps frequently; when King Fasiledes (in power 1632–1667) dubbed Gondar Ethiopia’s capital in 1636 and began constructing the first castle, he made the city something of a novelty. Each of the Ethiopian emperors who followed in the 17th and mid-18th centuries left his own structural signature, creating the royal compound known as Fasil Ghebbi.
Stepping into the usually isolated complex gives pause to the urban sounds of the surrounding town. Only the echoes of daily prayers ring through the thick air, accompanying visitors as they meander along well-worn pathways and beneath looming arches. Banyan roots grip stone walls and watchtower windows offer panoramic views of dynamic mountains. But the town’s vibrant history rivals its landscape.
Outside Fasil Ghebbi’s 900-meter-long wall, many ancient yet still active monasteries and churches testify to the city’s religious heritage, as do other subtle and often overlooked traces throughout the area. During Christianity’s peak in the 18th century, 44 churches are rumored to have existed in the city. Hiding above several doorways in King Fasiledes’ palace complex, for example, a Star of David tells visitors of the ruler’s claim to the line of King Solomon. Laden with symbolism, the entry gate resembles the Lion of Judah, and 12 rounded towers enfolding one church represent the Bible’s Twelve Apostles. One bath in the enclosure famously doubled as a Christian baptism site during celebrations of Timket, or Epiphany, and the tradition continues to this day. (Each year, thousands of people flock to the Fasiledes Bath for a chance to plunge into the holy water.) Christianity was grafted into Gondarine architecture and life, and today, the city remains a central hub of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church, as well as the homeland of many Ethiopian Jews.
As Gondar offered sophisticated education and religious training, it thrived. Just in Fasiledes’ lifetime, Gondar’s population boomed to 65,000, making it the largest Ethiopian city for almost two centuries. Seated at the junction of caravan routes between north and south, Gondar watched as the flowing trade of cross-cultural goods and ideas shaped its lifestyle — bringing various practices to the region. (Even today, the city’s most well-known artisans represent Jewish and Muslim minority groups.)
Allegedly constructed by an Indian architect, Fasiledes’ first castle boasts Portuguese, Moorish and Ethiopia’s own Aksumite influences within the intricacies of its walls. Later castles mimic the baroque architectural style practiced by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries. Generations later, Ethiopian ruler Iyasu I adorned his decadent palace with gilded Venetian mirrors and chairs.
Ethiopia is actually the only African nation with fairy-tale castles. But no matter how impressive they remain, these castles and their city have suffered their fair share of hardship and damage. In 1704, an earthquake nearly reduced Gondar to rubble. After bouts of internal warfare in the late 19th century, an Islamic group from Sudan called the Mahdist Dervishes burned all churches in Gondar but one. And during World War II, British attempts to expel Italian invaders with bombs threatened the remaining buildings.
Yet these incidents have become intrinsically valuable to the structure, and even to the folklore, of the city. Italy’s occupation during WWII, for example, changed the city’s layout: A piazza now functions as the center of town, just steps from the royal enclosure. And farther from the compound, a colorful mural of more than 120 angels enhances the ceiling of Debre Birhan Selassie — trumpeting a story of Gondar’s endurance despite attack. According to legend, when the Mahdist Dervish invaders approached the church — the only one to survive — a swarm of bees descended on the compound and the Archangel Michael himself stood before the wooden gates, protecting the grounds from harm.
In an effort to preserve the structures of Gondar, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization granted Fasil Ghebbi World Heritage status in 1979. Since then, UNESCO has lobbied to protect Gondar’s worth, devising plans to restore the site. By preserving the castles, the core of Gondar’s narrative continues — a finely spun tapestry, flecked with the colors of turmoil and success. And while it has kept quiet for centuries, Gondar’s fortress now welcomes visitors, ready to tell its tale.