Gondar, or Gonder, is a city in northern Ethiopia. It’s known for the walled Fasil Ghebbi fortress and palace compound, once the seat of Ethiopian emperors. Dominating it is the immense 17th-century castle of Emperor Fasilides, which combines Portuguese, Indian and local architectural styles. Outside the complex is Debre Berhan Selassie church, with an interior of elaborate murals, including a ceiling of faces.
What to Expect & When To Visit
The weather is mild to warm most of the year. The most popular time to visit is Oct–Jan, when days are usually dry. This is also a favorable time for hiking in Simien Mountains National Park. The rainy season is Jun-Sep, peaking Jul–Aug. Trips to Lake Tana are popular when the lake is full after the rainy season (Oct). Timkat (Jan) is a festival with religious ceremonies celebrating the act of baptism, including one held at the Bath of Fasilides.
Gonder was the capital of Ethiopia from 1632 to 1855, and it has the remains of castles and palaces constructed by a series of emperors from Fasilides (reigned 1632–67) to Iyasu II (1730–55). The ruins of these structures stand within a walled imperial enclosure. The most important buildings are the castle of Fasilides and the palace of Iyasu the Great (reigned 1682–1706). The architectural style of these stone buildings displays a prominent Portuguese influence, along with connections to the Aksumite empire’s palaces and the mosques of South Arabia. Only a few of the 44 churches reputed to have existed in Gonder in the 18th century survive, but the city is still an important centre of the Ethiopian Orthodox church; its beautifully decorated 17th-century Debre Berhan Selassie Church is still in use. Gonder suffered greatly during the period of the civil wars (1750–1890) in Ethiopia, but, after the British conquest of the Sudan (1899), the town resumed its trade with the Blue Nile region. The city’s inhabitants are mainly Christians, but some Muslims live in the locality.
Although Gonder is a trade centre for grains, oilseeds, and cattle, the economy of the surrounding area is basically one of subsistence farming. Gonder’s craftsmen produce textiles, jewelry, copperware, and leatherwork. The city is a significant highway junction and is served by an airport. The modern hospital has an attached medical university, training staff for rural clinics. Pop. (2007 prelim.) 206,987.
After spending time at Fasilides’ Castle, look for the skeletal shell of the Palace of Iyasu I. Known for his quick and piercing wit, Iyasu I is considered the greatest ruler of the “Gonderine period”. His palace used to be sumptuously decorated with gilded Venetian mirrors and chairs, and gold leaf, ivory and beautiful paintings adorning the walls. Today it is mostly a shell, but still interesting to walk among the ruins and imagine what once was.
After visiting the several castles inside the Royal Enclosure, you can make your way to Fasilides’ Bath, only 2kms away. The Fasilides’ Bath (“Fasil Mewagna”, as the locals tend to call it), is composed of a rectangular pond, or pool, with a tiny lion-shape castle-like building on its side. There are huge, snake-like tree roots growing through the stone holding the pool’s walls.
It is believed that the complex was used for swimming, though today it is used for religious ceremonies, notably the Timkat celebration, where pilgrims immerse themselves in the water as a renewal of their faith. This is one of the best preserved historical places in Gonder and a worthwhile stopover not only for the history and photographic opportunities but also the magnificent architecture. No need for an additional entry price as it is included in the ticket price to the royal enclosure.
Known for its beautiful examples of Ethiopian church art, Debre Birhan Selassie was built in the 17th Century by Emperor Eyasu II. “Debre Birhan”, Amharic for “Mountain of Light”, was the Emperor’s nickname and was chosen in honor of the church bearing the same name in Shewa.
Built of stone and contained under a two-tiered thatched roof, every centimeter of the wall and roof is covered by paintings which depict biblical scenes, saints, and icons of the Holy Trinity. Flash photography is strictly forbidden and you can get a tour from a local on-site priest for a small donation, who will give you some added appreciation of the art.
A stark contrast from the seemingly endless man-made attractions in Gondar, the landscape of Simien Mountains is a truly stunning, out-of-this-world display of nature’s creativity. Highland ridges reaching 3600 meters above sea level can be seen covered with lush grass vegetation, as well as other isolated trees, only to suddenly dip into valleys and plateaus, opening into vistas of greenery. Aside from the flora, you may also catch a glimpse of the endemic Walia Ibex and Simien Fox along with other spectacular species roaming the hills. Simien Mountains can be explored as intensively as you or your fitness level would allow; however, there is a good bit of trekking involved regardless of your choice.
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