Gondar: The Camelot of Africa

16 November 2014

When pre-twentieth century Africa is studied in schools it is the slave trade, its awful consequences and the later colonial Scramble for Africa of the nineteenth century which tend to attract the focus of both teachers and students.

Often overlooked is the only country which successfully resisted European incursion and retained its own sovereignty: perhaps its late twentieth century tragedies of famine and attendant local and civil wars do little to persuade the casual historian to look further in to its past.

Yet Ethiopia’s history stretches back thousands of years: it was the second ever nation, after Armenia, to adopt Christianity as its state religion, around 324 AD. During the fifteenth century it initiated contact with Europe (not, as many would assume, the other way around) with diplomatic messages sent to King Henry V of England and emissaries sent to Spain.  Then, in the early seventeenth century the city of Gondar was founded: it would eventually become known as the Camelot of Africa. Its complex of imperial palaces and associated buildings stand to this day.

Image Credit Gustav Jeronimo
Image Credit rabbit.hole
It was contact with a third European power which would prove fateful for Ethiopia.  Swayed by Portuguese missionaries in 1624, Emperor Susenyos I converted to the Roman Catholic faith, a move which precipitated years of rebellion. This culminated in his son, Fasilides, usurping his rule and immediately restoring the traditional Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  Six years after his proclamation as emperor, legend has it that the 33 year old Fasilides found himself beside a lake next to the river Angereb in the north of the country.

Image Credit Al and Marie
Image Credit Al and Marie
There he met an old and venerable hermit who told the Emperor to build his capital there.  Fasilides duly did so, draining the pool and founding the city.  The place became known as Gondar and its castles and fortifications Fasil Ghebbi.  The distinction between the two is important: the castles served effectively as a walled city within a city – the name itself translates as the royal enclosure.

Image Credit gordontour
Image Credit Al and Marie
This was a great departure for Ethiopian royalty. Until this point Emperors and their huge retinues would make continual, if slow and steady, progress throughout the country.  They would live in colossal, magnificent tents and live off produce farmed by the local populations. This, however, was the first time that the decision had been made to settle, as it were, the capital in a single place. It proved to be a decision which persevered. Over the centuries that followed the complex of castles, churches (an astonishing 44 were built) and other buildings would be added to the complex and surrounding city by succeeding emperors.

Image Credit Gordontour
Image Credit Al and Marie
Although today it is a public park, Faisl Ghebbi covers over 70,000 square meters with the main hall at its northern end.  The wall which surrounds it is punctuated by twelve gates, each with its own name and history.  Within a century the population of the city exceeded 60,000 and was seen by many Ethiopians as both a focus of national pride and an embodiment of traditional values.  Yet during its time as the capital the country became more insular and inward-looking.

Image Credit hhesterr
Image Credit Alan
Nonetheless, the remaining architecture, taking in Nubian, Arabic and baroque styles, indicates that this was a place which must have contained vast wealth, both material and cultural.  The trappings which went with such constructions and fortifications must have been exquisite to say the very least: Faisl Ghebbi was famed for its affluence and its impact on the Ethiopian nation was immense.

Image Credit Al and Marie
Image Credit hhesterr
Image Credit Martijn.Munneke
At a time when many European monarchs shunned bathing, Fasilides had his own swimming pool (pictured above) housed in its own magnificent building.  He must have lived in the height of luxury. Perhaps it is not so difficult to imagine why he made the decision to cease being an itinerant ruler, throwing off centuries of tradition.

Image Credit Alan
Image Credit Alan
Not that he or the denizens of Gondar were exempt from strife. In 1666, the same year as the Great Fire of London, the heir to the throne, Dawit, rebelled against Fasilides. Like father, like son perhaps but this time the incumbent Emperor won out.  He had Dawit incarcerated in a royal prison on top of the distant Amba Geshen Mountain. This was a resumption of an ancient practice whereby male relatives of the emperor would be imprisoned until they either died or were declared emperor themselves.  This revived practice would go on for another century.

Image Credit 10b Travelling
Image Credit Marta Semu
Fasilides died just a year later. His body was interred in a monastery built on an island in Lake Tana, the landlocked country’s largest body of water.  Another son, Isur, was buried with him.  At only seven he had been smothered in a crush by a crowd paying homage to the new king, his older brother Yohannes (the fourth son of Fasilides).  Perhaps that was a kind of escape for the boy: all of Fasilides’ other sons went to join their rebellious sibling Dawit in his mountain prison.

Image Credit Al and Marie
Image Credit Martijn.Munneke
Gondar was Ethiopia’s capital city until 1855, a period of over two centuries.  It marked a time of huge strife for the city.  Just over a decade later it was bombarded and sacked by a Sudanese Islamic khalifa (ruler), Adballahi ibn Muhammad.  Almost all of its 44 ancient churches were set alight in an act of religious vandalism which resonates in to our own modern era.  Just fifty years later the entire country was conquered by the Italian forces of Benito Mussolini.  Gondar was first developed by the occupying Italians who then later used it as a guerrilla base against British forces until it was liberated in the summer of 1943.

Image Credit Al and Marie
Image Credit Al and Marie
Although the complex gained UNESCO World Heritage Status in 1979 many of the interiors are dilapidated and without roofs.

Image Credit Alan
Image Credit Alan
However, there are plans to fully restore Fasil Ghebbi if not to its former glory then to at least a point at which it can be preserved for the future,

Image Credit Manogamos
Image Credit Manogamos
Image Credit manogamos
Fasil Ghebbi somehow managed to survive the ravages of centuries, perhaps not intact but with its original splendor still evident nonetheless.  The emperors are long dead, their power and wealth can now be discovered only in books.  Yet the voices of the courtiers going about their business through the banqueting halls, libraries and stables of the castle complex can, perhaps, still be heard if you listen closely enough.

Image Credit Martijn.Munneke
Image Credit Alan Johnston
Image Credit Matthew Goulding
First Image Credit Achilles Family



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