Gondar: Camelot of Africa
Dubbed the Camelot of Africa, the city of Gondar — capital of Ethiopia from 1636 until the mid 19th century — combines a modern veneer with an architectural sensibility harking back to the Middle Ages. The city's physical and architectural centrepiece is Fasil Ghebbi, a stone-walled Royal Compound containing half a dozen fairytale castles including the three-storey original built by Emperor Fasil in the 1630s. The Fasil Ghebbi UNESCO World Heritage Site also incorporates several more remote constructions, most notably the Church of Debre Berhan Selassie, with its beautifully painted interior.
- Enclosed by tall stone walls, the central Fasil Ghebbi is a 7-hectare 'Royal Compound' housing six fortified stone castles built from the 1630s onward. The most striking is Emperor Fasil’s three-storey castle, which stands 32 metres high, and displays a blend of Portuguese, Indian and indigenous Aksumite influences typical of the Gondarine style.
- Consecrated in 1693 under Emperor Iyasu I, Debre Berhan Selassie (‘Mountain of the Enlightened Trinity’) was the only major Gondarine church to survive the Mahdist attack of 1888 unscathed - thanks, legend has it, to the intervention of a virulent bee swarm. The ceiling, adorned with 17th-century paintings of 80 cherubic faces, is probably the most famous ecclesiastic artwork in Ethiopia.
- The sunken Fasil’s Pool, overlooked by a two-storey building attributed to Emperor Fasil, is where Gondar’s legendarily colourful annual Timkat (Ethiopian Epiphany) celebrations take place on January 19 (a day later in Leap Years).
- Named after a Coptic convent in Egypt, the 18th century Kuskuam Palace was constructed on the slopes of Debre Tsehay (Mountain of Sun) for the charismatic Empress Mentewab, wife of Emperor Bakaffa, and regent to their son Iyasu II and grandson Iyaos I.
- On the northern outskirts of Gondar, an abandoned synagogue at Woleka evokes the story of the Beta Israel, a ‘lost tribe’ of Ethiopian Jews whose last 10,000-or-so adherents were airlifted to Israel during the 1980s.
- Old Gorgora, on the Lake Tana shore 65km south of Gondar, houses the most remote of the sites that comprise the Fasil Ghebbi UNESCO World Heritage Site: a ruined castle and Catholic church called Maryam Gimb.
The 14th-century Monastery of Debre Sina Maryam, a monastic church at 'new' Gorgora, is decorated with some of Ethiopia's oldest surviving paintings, executed in the 1620s under the patronage of Melakotawit, the elder sister of Emperor Fasil.
Gondar stands about 730km north of Addis Ababa, 176km north of Bahir Dar and 355km southwest of Aksum. The drive from Aksum takes you through the very scenic Simien Mountains National Park.
Daily flights connect Gondar to Addis Ababa, Lalibela and Aksum (www.ethiopianairlines.com). The airport is about 17km south of the town centre off the road to Bahir Dar. Most hotels offer a free airport transfer service, and taxis are also available.
Taxis are widely available in the town centre, and inexpensive. Several local operators offer day tours of the town and longer excursions to the Simien Mountains. When visiting Fasil Ghebbi, a knowledgable local guide - optional but highly recommended - can be obtained at the guides association kiosk next to the ticket office.
Annual Events and Festivals
Gondar is renowned as the best place to be during Timkat, with its unique cultural performances. Timkat is the Ethiopian Orthodox equivalent to Epiphany, celebrated on January 19 (a day later in Leap Years). The festival culminates in crowded and colourful afternoon reenactment of the first baptism, held at the 17th century Fasil’s Pool, which is filled with water for the occasion.
A good selection of hotels catering to all budgets can be found in the town centre. For those who prefer to stay out of town, at least one good hotel or lodge can also be found at Kossoye (near Wunenia), Azazo (near the airport), and more distantly at Gorgora and in the Simien Mountains.
Guide to Gondar and Lake Tana by Gian Paulo Chiari (2012), www.aradabooks.com - the most detailed site guide to Gondar and nearby historic sites in print.
Bradt Guide to Ethiopia by Philip Briggs (7th edition 2015), www.bradtguides.com - detailed background information and up-to-date hotel, restaurant and other listings.
Gondar Tourist Office - tel +251 (0) 58 1115138, www.gondarcity.gov.et.
Amhara Culture, Tourism and Parks Development Bureau - www.amharatours.org.et.
- The heart of the Fasil Ghebbi UNESCO World Heritage Site is a 7-hectare Royal Compound enclosing six castles, three churches, and several other 17th century buildings.
- Outside the Royal Compound, the three-storey castle known as Ras Gimb was once the residence of Ras Mikael Sehul, a prince who dominated Gondarine politics in the 1760s.
- The sunken Fasil’s Pool, overlooked by a two-storey building attributed to Emperor Fasil, is where Gondar’s legendarily colourful annual Timkat celebrations take place.
- Founded under Emperor Iyasu II, the church of Kidus Yohannes (Saint John) was partially destroyed by Mahdists in 1888, but the original vestry and outer walls are still standing.
- The most beautiful of Gondarine churches, Debre Berhan Selassie was consecrated in 1693 and has walls and ceiling covered with paintings of 80 cherubic faces in neat rows, probably the most famous example of ecclesiastic paintings in Ethiopia
- Constructed in the 1730s by the Empress Mentewab, Kuskuam is an impressive palace and church complex set 3km west of central Gondar.
- The hilltop Guzara Castle, set alongside the Bahir Dar road 65km from Gondar, was built in 1571 for Emperor Sarsa Dengal and offers grand views across to Lake Tana.
- The ruined church of Maryam Gimb at Old Gorgora was built by the Spanish missionary Pedro Páez, who also constructed a castle for Emperor Susenyos at the site.
- Sleepy Gorgora, on the northern shore of Lake Tana, is a leafy port town notable for its birdlife and the ancient paintings preserved in the church of Debre Sina Maryam.
- The former Beta Israel settlement of Woleka is the site of a disused synagogue and several craft stalls selling clay dolls and other artefacts associated with Ethiopia’s Jews.
- An impressive partial ruin, Danqaz Castle, built by Emperor Susenyos in 1619, lies only 25km from Gondar but is three times that distance by road.
- Guided 3-4 hour day hikes at Wunenia, 25km north of Gondar, offer an opportunity to see gelada baboons and guereza monkeys, as well as plenty of birds, in spectacular montane scenery.
- Gondar is the air gateway to the Simien Mountains National Park, a spectacular UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site incorporating Ethiopia’s highest peak, and home to endemic gelada baboons and walia ibex.