Dubbed the Camelot of Africa, the city of Gondar — the 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 centerpiece is Fasil Ghebbi, a stone-walled Royal Compound containing half a dozen fairytale castles including the three-story 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.
What to See?
- 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-story castle, which stands 32 meters 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-story building attributed to Emperor Fasil, is where Gondar’s legendarily colorful 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 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
Practical information before your trip to
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 center 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 center, and inexpensive. Several local operators offer day tours of the town and longer excursions to the Simien Mountains. When visiting Fasil Ghebbi, a knowledgeable local guide – optional but highly recommended – can be obtained at the guides association kiosk next to the ticket office.
A good selection of hotels catering to all budgets can be found in the town center like Gondar hill resorts, Herfazy resort, Zobel Resort hotel, Goha Hotel, Haile resort Gondar, Kassahun Lodge, AG Hotel, Florida International Hotel, Jantekel Hotel, Taye Belay Hotel and others. 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.
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 a crowded and colorful afternoon reenactment of the first baptism, held at the 17th century Fasil’s Pool, which is filled with water for the occasion.