Ensconced in the foothills of the iconic Simien Mountains in northern Ethiopia, sitting side by side with a bevy of natural resources, the Red Sea and bordering Sudan, is Gondar City, the epitome of Ethiopian civilization that has over the centuries redefined religion, culture and diplomatic relations between the country and its neighbors.
Yet the city that is home to over 360,000 inhabitants and remains one of the biggest tourist attraction sites in Africa. Its remarkable buildings have earned it the name “the Camelot of Africa,” with its signature architectural centerpiece, a stone-walled royal compound of fairytale castles. It was the capital of Ethiopia from 1636 to the mid-19th century.
The royal compound known locally as Fasil Ghebbi, originally built by Emperor Fasilides in the 1630s and which still stands tall today, is a cocktail of architectural prowess hosting a church, a pool, a church, a monastery and several palaces.
The city that is home to over 360,000 inhabitants and remains one of the biggest tourist attraction sites in Africa.
Behind the towering stone walls sits the 7-hectare royal compound that is home to six stone castles reminiscent of medieval Europe. It is here that Emperor Fasilides’ three-story castle rests, an amalgam of Indian, Portuguese and indigenous Aksumite architectural styles.
Next to the royal compound is the Debre Berhan Selassie, or the Trinity and Mountain of Light Church, the most important church in Ethiopia, which is hailed as the cradle of the Ethiopian religion. It is celebrated for the depth of its artistry and its beautiful interior is the reason tourists fly in all year round. Ecclesiastic artwork that includes biblical scenes and images of saints lines its walls, while the ceiling beams are adorned with the faces of angels.
Next to the church is a Christian baptism site, formerly the location of Emperor Fasilides’ bath. In January each year during the Timket, Epiphany, ceremony that marks the baptism of Christ, hundreds of pilgrims jump into this pool filed with holy water shouting and laughing to commemorate a religious ceremony that has been passed on for centuries.
But behind the allure is story of a city that withstood many natural calamities and wars. A powerful earthquake in early 1700 nearly brought down the town, with cracks still evident today. In the height of World War II, during a protracted battle between Britain and Italy over control of the town many key buildings were bombed. And prior to that, pockets of conflict with an Islamic group from Sudan dubbed the “Mahdist Dervishes” also saw many churches destroyed. Legend has it that the Trinity and Mountain of Light Church survived intact due to a virulent swarm of bees that fended off a Mahdist attack.
Still the city has found its footing in its rich culture, with its people heavily ingrained in tradition and actively involved in numerous elaborate religious festivals that are an incentive for tourism. The city has invested heavily in traditional hotels and lodges to fill this growing demand from visitors from around the globe. ■