North of Lake Tana, sits the Royal Enclosure of Gondar, known for its imposing castles that were built by a succession of Ethiopian kings beginning in the early 17th century. Having survived several wars, the castles are a testament to the resilience of this once mighty African Empire. From here on in, the Kings of Ethiopia ruled from Gondar’s castles.
The castles of Gondar were never part of my original itinerary, but I included them as they fitted in pretty neatly with the rest of the Northern Ethiopia backpacking circuit. I was glad I had the gumption to include what people call “the Camelot of Ethiopia”, as Gondar is a fascinating place to explore, and a place where you could lose yourself in enchantment for at least 3-4 hours. At the gate an entrance fee of US$6 is levied. Tickets are only valid for the day of purchase and include still photography. For a first-time visitor, hiring an official guide is recommended and their fees start at around US$9 per group (including for an individual). It is best that you first walk around under the tuition of the guide, then return on your own later to soak up some of the atmosphere.
The most impressive castle within the enclosure is the original 17th century castle built by Fasilidas, restored with UNESCO funding between 1999 and 2002. Fasilidas’ Castle is made of stone and shows a unique combination of Portuguese, Axumite, and even Indian influences. The ground floor consists of reception and dining areas. The walls are decorated with a symbol similar to the Star of David, which became the emblem of the Ethiopian royal family after the Solomonic dynasty reclaimed the throne in the 13th century. The first-floor roof of the castle was used for prayer and religious ceremonies, and it is also where Fasilidas addressed the townsfolk. Fasilidas’ prayer room, also on the first floor, has four windows, every one of which faces a church. Stairs lead from the roof to the small second-floor room that Fasilidas used as his sleeping quarters. Above this is an open balcony, which was probably the watchtower. This third-floor platform offers views in all directions, and on a clear day, you can even see Lake Tana on the horizon!
One of the churches I most wanted to visit was Debre Berhan Selassie Church, which became of interest to me due to the iconic murals on its ceiling. The outside of Debre Berhan Selassie is rather plain, but its interior has made it one of Ethiopia’s top tourist attractions. The walls depict biblical scenes and saints and the ceiling is covered with the faces of hundreds of angels and demons. Icons of the Holy Trinity (three identical men with halos) and the Crucifixion have pride of place above the entrance to the Holy of Holies.
Not too far away from the main complex, I encountered Fasilidas’ Bath. This large rectangular pool is overlooked by a charming building, thought by some to be a vacation home. It is a beautiful and peaceful spot, where snakelike tree roots digest sections of the stone walls. Although the complex was used mainly for swimming (I learned that royalty used to wear goat-skin lifejackets to keep them afloat during their refreshing dips!), it was likely to have been constructed for religious celebrations, the likes of which still go on today. Once a year, the pool is filled with water for the Timkat celebration. The ceremony replicates Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River and is seen as an important renewal of faith.
Sometimes you really forget that you are in Africa when travelling in Gondar – it almost seems like being in Medieval Europe. It is also said that Professor J.R.R. Tolkien drew inspiration from Gondar in Ethiopia for his city of Minas Tirith in his Lord of the Rings opus. I have witnessed the churches of Lalibela, the mosques of Harar, and the monasteries of Lake Tana, but it was here Gondar’s castles that left the largest impression on me.