The Northern Circuit
Kibran – Northern Circuit Attractions
Introduction to Gondar
Also known as the imperial city of Fasilides, Gondar was the first capital of the Ethiopian empire, which began in 1632 with the reign of Fasilides. The kings of Ethiopia based their power here for over two centuries.
The fortress city of Fasil Ghebbi can be described as Ethiopia’s very own Camelot and houses the former residences of Emperor Fasilides and his successors. Enclosed by a 900 meter-long wall, the castle compound is made up of ancient palaces, churches and other public buildings. Although there are distinct Arab and Eastern influences, the Baroque style brought by the Jesuit missionaries dominates the architecture.
Ethiopian kings were nomadic from the 13th to the 17th centuries, frequently moving their camps. In 1636 Emperor Fasilides established Fasil Ghebbi as a strategic permanent capital. What started as a camp grew into a formidable fortified compound before its eventual decline in the 18th century.
Whilst almost all of Gondar’s 44 churches were destroyed during Mahdist Sudanese dervishes in the 1880’s, the Debre Birhan Selassie Church went unscathed. Tradition tells how a giant swarm of bees emerged from the compound, sending the invaders fleeing. The city remains an important center of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
When visiting Gondar, especially in certain precincts such as the Piazza, you will notice a distinct Italian footprint. During the Italian occupation of Ethiopia (1936 to 1941), the Italian forces used Fasil Ghebbi as their headquarters. They also constructed accommodation and facilities in the city for their officials and colonists. Many of Gondar’s mediaeval castles were damaged during the British liberation, when bombs were dropped on the complex.
Good to Know
Recommended length of stay: 1-2 nights
- 2 nights if you want to use Gondar as a base and do a full day excursion to the Simien Mountain National Park on Day 2 (2 hr drive there)
Elevation: 2,133 meters (6,998 feet) above sea level
Major Religion: Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Where to Stay when in Gondar, Ethiopia
Gondar Hills Resort
Perched on a hill overlooking the mediaeval castles of Gondar, Gondar Hills Resort offers spectacular views, sprawling gardens and a luxurious home-away-from-home whilst exploring the city and surrounding area. The hotel’s architecture is very impressive, with skillful stone masonry giving it a royal castle-like appearance. Comprising 78 stylish and comfortable rooms, a restaurant, bar, swimming pool, wellness center, curio shop and conference & banqueting facilities, Gondar Hills Resort has an impressive range of facilities and amenities.
You can anticipate great service too, with a butler at your beck and call; and when it comes to dining, with an international world-class chef at the helm, the restaurants serves a range of international dishes as well as traditional Ethiopian fare.
Built in a style that echoes the area’s rich culture and history, Mayleko Lodge has 17 rock-thatched bungalows (21 rooms) and 10 standard rooms. The lodge is very conveniently located a few minutes’ drive from the Atse Tewodros airport, in the beautiful Gondar countryside. Mayleko Lodge offers a skillful combination of modern luxury and traditional hospitality. Facilities include 24-hour room service, free Wi-Fi in the lobby, a fitness room, swimming pool, gourmet restaurant and bar. You can even hit a few shots at the driving range before settling down to some refreshments on the terrace as you look out over the mountains. Constructed using reclaimed hardwoods, sustainable and recycles materials and local labour, the Lodge is eco-friendly. The hospitality team continues to follow this theme in their day-to-day operation, minimizing the impact on the environment and improving the lives of the local community.
Good to Know
- The time zone in Ethiopia is East Africa Time (EAT), GMT +3.
- Ethiopia has two seasons: a dry season (mid-September to May), and a rainy season (June to mid-September).
- Modest dress is appropriate, especially when visiting sacred sites. Shoes must always be removed before entering churches or mosques, and women are requested to wear a head covering.
Top tourist sites to visit when in Gondar
The bath house is enclosed by a tall stone wall which, over the years, has become intertwined with the roots of old ficus trees.
It is believed that the complex was originally used for leisure as well as for religious celebrations, the likes of which still go on today. Pilgrims still take a plunge at the issue of Timket or „Epiphany“. Once a year the bath is filled with water fed along a canal from the Qaha River, in preparatin for the Timket celebration. After the water is blessed by a high priest, 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.
The Fasilides Pool falls under the collection of Gondar monuments entitled Fasil Ghebbi, which were registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site of Outstanding Universal Value in 1979.
Legend states that Zobel’s Mausoleum, located nearby Fasilde’s Bath, was dedicated to Yohannes I’s favourite horse. There are several legendary tales describing the speed and heroism of this horse, which could jump 25 meters in one leap!
FASIL GHEBBI CASTLE COMPOUND
After the decline of the ancient Aksumite dynasty, which claimed to descend from King Solomon, the political power moved to Lalibela, under the Zagwe dynasty (1150 to 1270 AD). When the Zagwe dynasty declined, the Solomonic dynasty regained power in 1270. Between the 13th and 17th centuries the emperors of Ethiopia were nomadic, moving their royal encampments from location to location due to ongoing war against the Muslim sultanates bordering the Christian highland kingdom. In 1543, at the Battle of Woina Dega, King Gelawdewos of the Solomonic dynasty gained victory over the Adal Sultinate. This event led to a period of relative peace, during which the Christian highland kingdom was able to establish a permanent capital. In 1636 Emperor Fasilides settled in Gondar, establishing the city as the first permanent capital of the Solomonic dynasty.
A 900 meter-long wall encloses the royal compound, which houses the castles of Fasilides, Iyasu and Mentewab, Dawit’s Hall, Bekaffa’s Banquet Hall, stables, a royal sauna, the library and chancellery of Yohannes I, and well the churches Asasame Qeddus Mikael, Elfin Giyorgis and Gemjabet Mariyam.
Completed in the early 1640’s, Fasil Ghebbi or “the castle of Fasilides” resembles a mediaeval European castle. Whereas traditional Ethiopian architecture had been single level, Fasilides Castle had two! Each successive ruler added new royal buildings to the complex, reflective of their personal style. The Palace of Emperor Iyasu I (the grandson of Emperor Fasilides), is recorded as being particularly luxurious in its day, with magnificent paintings and ivory sculptures adorning the interior. Gold leaf and precious stone embellishments decorated the ceiling of the imperial throne room.
The medieaval castles, characterized by their lime mortar style, reflect the glory of the Gondarine kings. In addition to the Aksumite and Lake Tana styles of architecture, there are influences of Baroque, Indian and Arabian, attributed to the arrival of Jesuit missionaries. Indian masons, for example, came to Gondar with the Jesuit missionaries from Goa.
Like so many of the world’s historical treasures, the Fasil Ghebbi castle complex experienced its share of damage throughout the ages. The compound was attacked and looted during the Sudanese Mahdist war in the second half of the 19th century. During World War II, the compound was used as headquarters for the occupying Italian forces, making it a target for British air-raids during the fight for liberation. Post World War II, ongoing conflict with Sudan and Somalia hindered any attempts of restoration. Eventually, at the end of the 20th century, UNESCO began to reconstruct the site. It was eventually opened to the public in 2005.
DEBRE BIRHAN SILASSIE CHURCH
A visit to the Debre Birhan Selassie Church is one of the highlights of touring through Gondar. Debre Birhan means „place of light“ in Ge’ez, and Selassie means „trinity“.
The church is aptly named, with the upper front wall of the chapel featuring an incredible mural depiction of the Trinity – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Below the Trinity, there is a painting depicting the crucifiction of Christ.
The present day church building dates back to the late 18th century. The original church, built in the 1690’s by Emperor Iyasu I, was destroyed by lightning. Surrounding the church compound there is an impressive stone wall with twelve domed towers, representing the twelved apostles. The entrance gate, like the church, has two doors and is shaped to symbolize the Lion of Judah, or Christ Jesus.
In similar fashion to many Eastern Orthodox churches, Debre Birhan Selassie church has an unassuming stone and brick exterior. The church has a double-arched entrance door and two-tiered thatched roof. In accordance with Ethiopian Orthodox tradition, women may not enter through the main door, which is reserved for men. The southern door, accessed from the right-hand-side of the covered verandah is reserved for women to enter.
Inside the church, beneath the depictions of the Holy Trinity and Crucifiction, mirroring the double arched doors at the entrance, the front wall of the church is dominated by two arched doors. These entrances are draped in plush curtains and reserved for use by priests and deacons, as they lead to the Holy of Holies, where the replica of the Ark of the Covenant is kept.
When you enter the Debre Birhan Selassie Church it is easy to understand why this sanctuary is famous for its frescos and other murals. The ceiling and upper parts of the walls are covered – from corner to corner, with row-upon-row of the faces of painted wide-eyed winged cherubs. The angels looking down from above and inward from each corner, symbolise the omnipresence of God. The rest of the walls are covered in depictions of Bible scenes and saints, as described in the Ethiopian Orthodox religious tradition.
GOOD TO KNOW
- Flash photography is not permitted inside the church, as it damages the sacred artwork.
- Pack an extra pair of socks as shoes are not permitted inside the church.
- Ladies: A scarf is handy for covering your head when entering the church.
WOLLEKA JEWISH FALASHA VILLAGE
Just outside Gondar lies the village of Wolleka, which was once home to a thriving community of Ethiopian Jews or Falashas. The Falashas used the ancient Ethiopian language of Ge’ez for their liturgy and were not formally recognized as being Jewish until 1975. They lived in this village for generations, until they left left in the 1980’s and 90’s. The remaining Jews were airlifted to Israel in 1984, during Operation Moses.
After the adoption of Christianity as the state religion, Falashas had their land confiscated for refusing to convert. They became skilled crafters in order to survive. Locals have tried to keep the Falasha craft alive, so you can stop and purchase some of the signature pottery.
The village is easily recognizable by its craft stalls, many decorated with the Star of David.
Local Attractions to Visit in Gondar
Gondar Area Photo Gallery
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