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Wednesday 4 Mar 2009
Gondar, Ethiopia

Exploring Gondar

After settling into my hotel and a mad dash to get my SLR camera ready (the taxi driver waiting patiently for me!) I was finally ready to run into town and check out the sights ... I had barely 3-4 hours of sunlight left, not to mention the Royal Enclosure (my main target of interest in Gondar) was due to close in about 2 hours!! This is why flying to Gondar would have been better... doh!

"Gondar". The very name conjurs up images of castles and ancient rituals in testament to it's namesake in the "Lord of the Rings". It's not far off.

The history of Gondar is fascinating. Ethiopia has had many changes of capital over the centuries according to the whims of whatever emperor was in power at the time (Addis Ababa only became the capital in the 19th century when Emperor Menelik's consort decided she liked the beauty of the place and wanted her house to be built there), and so in 1636 Emperor Fasiladas moved the capital to Gondar as it was geographically convenient for fertile land and caravan routes transporting slaves and gold.

Fasilada's palace
Fasilada's palace

Gondar became Africa's Camelot! From 1636 until the fall of Gondar around 1784, huge castles were built that resemble anything you would find in Europe at the time (built using local materials of course, so the stones and cement have a distinct red-hue about them - made even more intense at the time I was there due to the oncoming sunset).

Gondar's palaces held huge banquets for various passing dignitaries, and it's pageantry and ceremonies became legendary in the region and among arab traders. The amount of wealth and power concentrated here was immense. It was like having King Henry VIII's court smack dab in the middle of Africa. And what got me the most was that I'd never heard of the place until I started researching this trip!

Gondar "fell" around 1784 after much in-fighting in the royal courts led to turmoil and rebellion among the 60,000 people who lived here. After the fall of this capital city, the country became a disorganised mesh of fiefdoms ruled by tribal leaders until around 1855 when a tribal leader declared himself Emperor Tewodros and vowed to unite the country again.

This is what I like most about Ethiopia. A fascinating kingdom and history that remains undiscovered by so many westerners. So much for the "famine-ridden tribal country" view that is still lodged in so many people's minds as a carryover from "Live Aid"!

Fasilada's palace
Fasilada's palace

There is a lot to see in Gondar, but I only had time for the royal enclosure before sundown. Many of the castles lay in ruins as a result of the British bombing of the dug-in Italians who were using it as a hideout toward the end of the second World War. The gem among the palaces is easily Fasilada's palace. It was built with 4 domed towers in a synthesis of Ethiopian/Indian/Portuguese styles and the interior is distinctly Moorish with high celings and clever use of natural ventilation (the air inside is fresh) and natural lighting.

It has recently been fully restored by Unesco and you can easily imagine the pomp and ceremonies that took place here. Large ancient wooden doors lead out onto precarious wooden balconies overlooking the enclosure. And several birds have made their nests in the candle-holding compartments carved into the walls.

It was errily silent and peaceful today with the sound of rustling trees moving in the fresh wind. Gondar was a lovely break from Bahar Dar's oppressive heat, being so high up in the mountains. In fact of all the places I visited in Ethiopia, Bahar Dar was the hottest and least comfortable.

Banqueting hall
Banqueting hall

View of the royal...
View of the royal...

The silence was occassionally broken by the crowds of well-dressed Ethiopian university students that seemed to be thronging through the place. In fact, such is the rarity of spotting faranji (tourists) in this part of Ethiopia, that I even became something of a spectacle myself and had about 10 Ethiopians wanting to get their photo taken with me. How the tables have turned eh? Laughing

Apart from Fasilada's Palace, there are several other lesser-restored castles dotted around the place that were built by subsequent Emperors including the huge banqueting hall and stables that were built by Emperor Bakaffa in 1721. The photo on the left doesn't really give a good impression of how huge this hall really is, but it's about 80m long and 8m high, and you can imagine what it must have been like when it was packed to the brim with drunken guests munching on huge feasts, while maidens danced away around them.

Still though, apart from the banquet hall, Fasilada's Palace, Fasil's Palace and one or two other castles in relative ruination, the actual royal enclosure is a lot smaller than I expected it to be, and I found that even in the short 2 hours I had to visit the place I had seen everything there was to see.

At this stage I didn't have time to visit the other "must-see" location in Gondar, the Debre Berhan Selassie church built in the C17th, which apparently has a remarkable ceiling painting of winged Ethiopian cherubs. Not to mention a rather saucy depiction of the Prophet Mohammed being led on a donkey by the devil! I guess not all was well with the Muslims at the time it was built.

I headed back for the hotel for the first good sleep I had in a while. Despite a noxious (and overpriced) dinner in the hotel, I was feeling much better now and could FINALLY indulge myself in Ethiopian cuisine (up until now I'd typically have eaten a small omellete for dinner and dry toast for breakfast as that's all my stomach could handle)

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Day 3  ... Lookin forward to Uhuru peak, Kilimanjaro

Day 3 ... Lookin forward to Uhuru peak, Kilimanjaro

With Toto's defining tune ringing in my head, I don khaki pants and venture full-throttle into Africa! Elephants, lions, huge mountains, men with spears intent on stabbing me (probably) and the "Cradle of Humanity" (tm)... 4 weeks ain't gonna be enough!

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    Fasil's castle ... 1632 ... 1667
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    Inside Fasilada's Palace
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