by Dr. Hanna Rubinkowska

Gondar CastleWhat is definitely the most striking part of Gonder are the ruins of the 17th Century castles.

Two remaining churches from the same period survived the worse period in the history of the town.

The Mahdist invasion in the 19th Century also destroyed most of the many Gondar historical churches.

Over the years there followed a slow process of collapse, but the most harm to the royal buildings was done in 1941 by the Allies’ bombing.

It happened during the British army support of Ethiopians in their final struggle against the occupying Italians. Now, UNESCO takes care of what remains of Gonder’s historical buildings, and what remains is a lot and they are impressive.

Emperor Fasiledas PalaceThe walled palace compound was built during the reigns of the Ethiopian emperors, who ruled between 1632 and 1855. Fasilades (r. 1632-1667) and chose Gonder for his residency.

During Fasilades’ reign Gonder rose to power and its fame started circulating in the contemporary world.

Apart from the Emperor Fasilades Palace, there is also his bath compound which was named after him.

This place, known as Fasil Mewagnia, is composed of a rectangular pond, or pool, with a tiny lion-shape castle-like building on its side. The baths are at a walking distance from the castles and still today, the pool serves for the baptismal ceremony during the Timqet celebration every year.

Huge old trees sitting at the sides of the pool, impressive with their external roots holding the pool’s walls, turn the baths today into a city park. A benefit of a shadow makes a special prize for the tired tourists, who can take a nice break here from the hard job of exploring distant lands and visiting historical places.

Debre Berhan Selassie's ChurchDuring the Fasilades’ reign and years which followed, many churches were built in the town.

Also the succeeding emperors had their palaces constructed for them.

Yohannes I (r. 1667-1682), Iyasu I (r. 1682-1706), Dawid III (r. 1716-1721), Bekaffa (r. 1721-1730), Iyasu II (r. 1730-1735), Yoas (r. 1755-1769).

Empress Mintiwab (wife of Bekaffa) had her palace built in the south-north direction.

Apart from the royal castles within the walls, there are also many other remains of the court life. They include stables, situated next to the Bekaffa’s palace, or kitchen of the Fasilides palace. Also a library and archive built for a Fasilides’ son, Yohannes I, and lion cages from the reign of Dawit III.

One can see what is left from a music hall and in the bathes there are still cow’s horns which used to serve as hooks for the clothes. The horns are not 17th century originals, but that does not matter.

Unfortunately, apart from the castles themselves, the condition of most ruins do not make it easy to imagine the purpose for which they were used. Here, the Gonder guides of knowledge and talent help to see what life was like at the royal court of the time.

The latest built is Kweskwam, palace and monastery of Empress Mintiwab. It is situated in the western outskirts of the town at a distance from the main palace compound. Kweskwam is impressive, huge and quite well preserved, with nobody to disturb the visitor, except for hordes of birds and crowds of lizards.

Another highlight of Kuskuam is a coffin, which can be shown by the guardian of the place to those who are interested. The coffin, placed in a church crypt, contains three skeletons. A bit crowded? Obviously, it is.

One of them is said to be Queen Mintiwab herself, accompanied by Iyasu and Yoas. How much is this true? Probably nobody will ever know. However, the three skeletons placed in a tiny coffin manage to produce a royal impression.

There is one more thing, which crosses the mind of those who visit Gonder. Well, especially if they are also those who read Tolkien’s books. Many names and many facts from the history of Gonder seems familiar to lovers of Tolkien. For example, the name of the town itself.

Also the fact that Gonder was famous for the best quality horses and horse-market, even the stables at the royal enclosure are very impressive.

The StablesHorses and horse trade played a very important part in the history of Gondar.

Horses, according to the color as well as other features, marked the level of nobility of the owner.

The fact is even more interesting, when you consider that throughout the history of Ethiopia, horses were seldom used.

Mules ridden by the aristocracy provided the most efficient mean of transportation in the mountains.

Dr. Hanna Rubinkowska

Dr. Hanna Rubinkowska has traveled extensively throughout Ethiopia and is a regular contributor to this site.

She has specialized in modern history of Ethiopia and currently lectures at Warsaw University, Department of African Languages and Cultures.

Dr. Hanna Rubinkowska (Ph.D.)

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