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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Explore Gondar, One of Ethiopia’s Ancient City


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Gondar, also known as Gonder, is a captivating city and district situated in the beautiful landscapes of Ethiopia.

It is located in the Amhara Region, in the northern part of the country, not far from Lake Tana and the stunning Simien Mountains.

As of 2021, Gondar is estimated to have a population of around 443,156 people. Gondar has a rich historical significance as it was once the capital of the Ethiopian Empire and later became an important province called Begemder.

The city proudly showcases the remains of several royal castles, including those found in the Fasil Ghebbi UNESCO World Heritage Site.

These castles give Gondar the nickname “Camelot of Africa” due to their grandeur and historical importance.

When you visit Gondar, you can explore the fascinating Fasil Ghebbi complex, which takes you back in time to the era of emperors and queens.

Walking through the ancient walls, you can witness the architectural beauty. Indeed, Gondar’s rich history and cultural heritage are evident in every corner of the city.

In addition to its historical attractions, Gondar offers a vibrant and lively atmosphere. You can experience local markets, enjoy traditional music, and partake in colorful festivals that celebrate the local culture.

The city is also known for its delicious Ethiopian cuisine, where you can try mouth-watering dishes like injera and doro wat.

Gondar’s natural surroundings are equally captivating. You can explore the picturesque Lake Tana or embark on adventurous treks through the breathtaking Simien Mountains.

The region’s beauty will leave you in awe and provide ample opportunities for outdoor exploration.

Gondar is a captivating city in Ethiopia with a rich history, stunning architecture, vibrant culture, and breathtaking natural landscapes. It is a place where you can experience the wonders of Ethiopia in a truly remarkable way.

The History of Gondar

Before the 16th century, the Ethiopian Emperors didn’t have a fixed capital city like we do today. Instead, they led a nomadic lifestyle, moving from place to place, and setting up temporary royal camps wherever they went.

These camps were like mobile cities, with the emperor, his family and bodyguards staying in tents.

The royal entourage relied on local resources, consuming surplus crops and using nearby trees for firewood. It was a dynamic way of life, following the seasons and the needs of the empire.

However, there were a few exceptions to this roaming lifestyle. One such exception was Debre Berhan, a town founded by Emperor Zara Yaqob in 1456.

It served as a relatively stable location for the Emperor and his court. Another notable town was Tegulet in Shewa, which essentially functioned as the capital during the early years of Solomonic rule in Ethiopia.

These locations provided some sense of permanence and organization amidst the nomadic nature of the empire.

The story of Gondar, also known as Gonder, begins with Emperor Fasilides around the year 1635. He founded this small agricultural and market town, which gradually grew in importance and influence.

Legend has it that Emperor Fasilides was guided to a pool beside the Angereb River by a buffalo. At the pool, he encountered an “old and venerable hermit” who prophesied that this was the perfect location for the capital.

He advised Fasilides to fill in the pool and build his castle on the very spot. Following the hermit’s guidance, Fasilides constructed his magnificent castle, setting the foundation for the city of Gondar.

As time went on, subsequent emperors continued to contribute to the growth and development of Gondar.

A total of seven churches were built in the city. The first two, Fit Mikael and Qedus Abbo, were constructed to combat local epidemics, showcasing the emperors’ concern for the welfare of their people.

During the 16th century, the rulers of Ethiopia started to establish semi-permanent settlements during the rainy season near Lake Tana.

These temporary cities, such as Emfraz, Ayba, Gorgora, and Dankaz, thrived for a short period before eventually declining.

They served as centers of activity, trade, and administration during the rainy season, providing stability and convenience for the rulers and their retinues.

In the 17th century, Emperor Yohannes I issued a decree that resulted in the segregation of the inhabitants of Gondar based on their religion.

This policy led to the creation of separate quarters for Muslims and Jews within the city. The Muslim quarter came to be known as Addis Alem, meaning “New World,” while the Jewish quarter was called Kayla Mayda, referring to the plain of Kayla.

This segregation reflected the diverse religious fabric of the city and allowed each community to maintain its distinct identity.

Gondar’s challenges

Gondar experienced a period of great prosperity and growth during the 17th century, with its population estimated to have exceeded 60,000.

The city became a center of trade, culture, and political power. Many of the buildings and structures from this era have survived the tumultuous events of later centuries, standing as a testament to Gondar’s vibrant past.

However, the city also faced its fair share of challenges. In the 19th century, Gondar served as the capital of Ethiopia until Emperor Tewodros II decided to move the imperial capital to Debra Tabor in 1856.

This decision marked a significant turning point for Gondar. It transitioned from being the political hub of the empire to becoming known as the “city of Priests,” with a focus on religious and spiritual matters.

Unfortunately, Gondar suffered destruction and devastation during this period. Emperor Tewodros II plundered and burnt the city in 1864, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake.

Subsequently, in June 1887, Gondar was invaded by Abdallahi ibn Muhammad, who led Sudanese forces that wreaked havoc, setting fire to almost every church in the city. The city bore witness to the ravages of war and the challenges of external aggression.

The 20th century brought further changes and developments to Gondar. During the Italian occupation of Ethiopia in 1936, the city experienced significant transformations under Italian rule.

The Italians invested in infrastructure and urban planning, leaving a lasting impact on Gondar’s architectural landscape.

In 1937, the Comboni missionaries established the Latin Catholic Apostolic Prefecture of Gondar, contributing to the religious fabric of the city.

Gondar also played a role in the larger context of World War II. When Mussolini’s Italian forces faced defeat, they made their last stand in Gondar in November 1941, after Addis Ababa had already fallen to British forces six months earlier.

The area surrounding Gondar became a hotbed of Italian guerrilla activity against the advancing British forces. The city witnessed the trials and tribulations of war, leaving scars on its historical fabric.

In more recent times, during the Ethiopian Civil War, Gondar found itself on the frontline of conflict. The forces of the Ethiopian Democratic Union gained control of significant portions of Begemder, the region where Gondar is located.

At one point in 1977, they were within striking distance of capturing the city, causing great concern and anxiety among its inhabitants. The city stood as a symbol of resilience and determination in the face of turmoil and uncertainty.

Finally, in March 1991, Gondar was captured by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front as part of Operation Tewodros, marking the end of the Ethiopian Civil War.

The city experienced yet another chapter in its rich history, transitioning from a period of conflict to one of post-war reconstruction and recovery.

In simpler terms, before the 16th century, Ethiopian emperors didn’t have a fixed capital and lived in temporary camps.

Gondar was founded in the 17th century and grew as a small town for farming and trade. It became an important city with castles and churches built by the emperors.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, Gondar faced various challenges, including attacks, bombings, and changes in the capital.

Today, Gondar stands as a living testament to Ethiopia’s rich history, with its royal castles, churches, and a vibrant community that embraces its past while looking towards the future.

Landscape of Gondar

In the past, Gondar was divided into different neighborhoods. Addis Alem was where the Muslim residents lived, while Kayla Mayda was home to the Beta Israel community.

There was also an area called Abun Bet, where the head of the Ethiopian Church resided, and Qagn Bet, where the nobility lived.

Gondar is known for its rich religious heritage, especially as a center for learning within the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

It boasts an impressive number of 44 churches, more than any other place in Ethiopia for many years.

Additionally, Gondar and its surrounding areas have historically been the homeland of most Ethiopian Jews.

Today, Gondar attracts many tourists due to its captivating ruins in the Royal Enclosure, which was once the seat of power for the emperors.

The Royal Enclosure is home to famous buildings such as Fasilides’ castle, Iyasu’s palace, Dawit’s Hall, a banquet hall, stables, Empress Mentewab’s castle, a chancellery, a library, and three churches.

Close to the city, you can find Fasilides’ Bath, where a special annual ceremony takes place to bless the bath before it is opened for bathing.

There is also the Qusquam complex, built by Empress Mentewab, as well as Ras Mikael Sehul’s Palace from the 18th century and the Debre Berhan Selassie Church.

When you explore downtown Gondar, you’ll notice the influence of the Italian occupation during the late 1930s.

The main piazza features various shops, a cinema, and other public buildings designed in a simplified Italian Moderne style.

Despite changes over time and sometimes neglect, the architecture still retains a distinct character from that period.

The nearby residential area, which used to house Italian officials and colonists, also offers interesting villas and flats to see.

Also read: Abuna Yemata Guh, A Glimpse into Ethiopia’s Unique and Inaccessible Place of Worship

Tourists are drawn to Gondar because of its fascinating ruins, including castles, palaces, and churches in the Royal Enclosure.

There’s also a special bath that is blessed every year for bathing. In the city center, you can see buildings influenced by Italian architecture from the past, and the residential area nearby has interesting houses from the time of Italian occupation.


In conclusion, Exploring Gondar is a remarkable journey that leaves a lasting impression and provides a gateway to the wonders of Ethiopia.




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