A queen, who slew the brother of the King of Kings, was dangled by a rope from the branches of a tree outside theRoyal Enclosure (Map p121 ; admission Birr50, personal video cameras Birr75, guides Birr50; h8.30am-12.30pm & 1.30-6pm), her limp body hanging alongside those of common criminals and traitors. The flayed and stuffed
bodies of rebels who had dared to challenge royal authority lay out in the open and were chewed on at night by dogs and hyenas. And on the other side of those mighty walls the Lions of Judah, descendants of Solomon and Sheba, wore crowns emblazed in emeralds and jewels and sat on cushions of gold while banqueting on raw flesh. The Gonder of yesteryear was a city of extreme brutality and immense wealth. Today the wealth and brutality are gone, but the memories linger and the trees continue to whisper stories of bodies swaying by a rope in the breeze.
The entire 70,000-sq-metre compound containing numerous castles and palaces has been almost completely restored with the aid of Unesco and was made a World Heritage Site in 1979. By far the most impressive, and also the oldest, building is Fasiladas’ Palace (found in the compound’s south). It stands 32m tall and has a crenulated parapet and four domed towers. Made of roughly hewn stones, it’s reputedly the work of an Indian architect and shows an unusual synthesis of Indian, Portuguese, Moorish and Aksumite influences.
The main floor was used as a dining hall and formal reception area; note the recessed Star of David above several doorways, which trumpet Fasiladas’ link to the Solomonic dynasty. The small room in the northern corner boasts its original beam ceiling and some faint frescoes. On the 1st floor, Fasiladas’ prayer room has windows in four directions, each overlooking Gonder’s important churches. On the roof, religious ceremonies were held, and it was from here that the emperor addressed his people.
Above Fasiladas’ 2nd-floor bedroom was the watchtower, from where it’s (apparently) possible to see all the way to Lake Tana. Behind the castle’s eastern corner are various ruined buildings, including the remains of the kitchen (domed ceiling) and water cistern (thought by some to be a pool). To the palace’s northeast is the saddleshaped Palace of Iyasu I . The son of Yohannes I, Iyasu I (reigned 1682–1706) is considered the greatest ruler of the Gonderine period.
Iyasu’s palace was unusual for its vaulted ceiling. The palace used to be sumptuously decorated with gilded Venetian mirrors and chairs, with gold leaf, ivory and beautiful paintings adorning the walls. Visiting travellers described the palace as ‘more beautiful than Solomon’s house’. Although a 1704 earthquake and British bombing in the 1940s have done away with the interior and roof, its skeletal shell reeks of history. North of Iyasu’s palace are the relics of its banquet hall and storage facilities. To the west is the quadrangular library of Fasiladas’ son, Yohannes I (reigned 1667–82), which has sadly been renovated and plastered over by the Italians. Once an impressive palace decorated with ivory, only the tower and walls of Fasiladas’ Archiveremain. It sits northwest of the library. The compound’s northern half holds vestiges of Dawit’s Hall and House of Song, in which many religious and secular ceremonies and lavish entertainments took place. Emperor Dawit (reigned 1716–21) also built the first of two Lion Houses (the second was built by Selassie) where Abyssinian lions were kept until 1992. When Dawit came to a sticky end (he was poisoned in 1721), Emperor Bakaffa (reigned 1721–30) took up the reins of power and built the huge banqueting hall and the impressive stables.
Between the stables and Dawit’s Hall is the Turkish bath (wesheba), which apparently worked wonders for those suffering from syphilis! At the southern end you’ll see the fire pit and the ceiling’s steam vents. Bakaffa’s consort was responsible for the last castle, Mentewab’s Castle, a two-storey structure that’s now part of an Ethiopian cultural heritage project. Note the Gonder cross being used as a decorative motif.
Around 2km northwest of the town centre lies Fasiladas’ Bath (admission incl in Royal Enclosure ticket; h8.30am-12.30pm & 1.30-5.30pm), which has been attributed to both Fasiladas and Iyasu I.
The large, rectangular sunken pool, which is reputedly larger than an Olympic pool, is overlooked by a small but charming building, thought by some to be Fasiladas’ second residence. It’s a beautiful and peaceful spot, where snakelike tree roots envelop, support and digest sections of the stone walls. Although the complex was used for bathing (royalty used to don inflated goatskin lifejackets for their refreshing dips!), it was likely to have been constructed for religious celebrations, the likes of which still go on today. Once a year, Fasiladas’ Bath is filled with water (the water comes from a river 500km away and it takes up to a month to fill) for the Timkat ( p248 ) celebration. After being blessed by a priest, the pool becomes a riot of splashing water, shouts and laughter as a crowd of hundreds jumps in. The ceremony replicates Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River, and is seen as an important renewal of faith.
Just east of the main compound is Zobel’s Mausoleum . Local legend states it’s named after Yohannes I’s horse, which heroically brought Iyasu (Yohannie’ son) back from
Sudan after his father’s death. Not only was the horse a good walker, but it was also pretty good at show jumping and is said to have been able to clear 25m in one single leap.
If you don’t want to walk, minibuses (Birr0.90) leaving from near the piazza pass here. You must obtain your ticket at the Royal Enclosure before visiting Fasiladas’ Bath.
DEBRE BERHAN SELASSIE CHURCH
If it weren’t for a swarm of bees, the beautiful church of Debre Berhan Selassie (admission Birr25; h6am-12.30pm & 1.30-6pm) would have probably been destroyed like most of Gonder’s other churches by the marauding armies of the Sudanese Dervishes in the 1880s. When the Dervishes showed up outside the gates of the church, a giant swarm of bees surged out of the compound and chased the invaders away. This was a lucky intervention – Debre Berhan Selassie is one of the most stunning churches in the nation. It’s the roof, with its rows and rows of winged cherubs, that draws most eyes. Exactly how many of these there are is surprisingly hard to pin down. We did a quick and not very scientific head count and came up with 135 – see what you get!
Full of all the colour, life, wit and humanity of Ethiopian art at its best, the walls provide a compendium of Ethiopian saints, martyrs and lore. Aside from the cherubs the highlights have to be the devilish Bosch-like depiction of hell and the Prophet Mohammed atop a camel being led by a devil. Although most paintings within the church are historically and happily attributed to the 17th-century artist Haile Meskel, this is highly unlikely to be the case because the remarkable rectangular church of today only dates back to the late 18th century. The original church, which was destroyed by fire, was circular (its foundations are still visible) and was created in the 1690s by Iyasu I.
A large stone wall with 12 rounded towers surrounds the compound and represents the 12 Apostles. The larger 13th tower (entrance gate) symbolises Christ and is shaped to resemble the Lion of Judah. If you have a keen eye, you’ll be able to spot the lion’s tail in the wall west of the church. Some historians hypothesise the symbolic architecture is evidence that the emperor planned to bring the Ark of the Covenant here from Aksum.
Flash photography inside the church is forbidden. Priests offer tours but a small contribution for the church should be left afterwards. The church lies around 2km northeast of the Royal Enclosure.
EMPRESS MENTEWAB’S KUSKUAM COMPLEX
It might not be as well preserved as the Royal Enclosure, but what this royal compound, known as Kuskuam (admission Birr25, personal video cameras Birr75; h8am-6.30pm), lacks in order it more than makes up for in melancholy. The complex was built in 1730 for the redoubtable Empress Mentewab, after the death of her husband (Emperor Bakaffa ). It’s said that she chose to move out here because she was a bit too keen on boys and living out here would keep her out of gossip’s way. Gossip and the boys didn’t stay away though: according to locals, when James Bruce stayed here with the empress during his explorations of the highlands, he got to discover more than just the source of the Blue Nile…
Like the Royal Enclosure, it’s made up of a series of buildings, including a long, castellated palace used for state receptions and to house the royal garrison. Its exterior is decorated with red volcanic tuff; spot the figures of crosses and Ethiopian characters and animals, such as St Samuel riding his lion. The nearby smaller building is said to have been the empress’s private residence. To the residence’s west used to be a fine church. However, after damage from British bombing, it had to be rebuilt. For a tip the church guardian will open up a trap door and lead you down into the church’s vaults where, under the faint light of a dying bulb, an old sheet will be whipped off a glassfronted coffin and the skeletons of the empress, her son and her grandsons (Emperors Iyasu II and Iyo’as) will stare back at you.
Below the complex lies a series of tiny doll-sized mud-and-stick houses that religious students live in while training to become monks. The complex lies in the hills 3.5km northwest of town. A taxi from the piazza, taking in here and Fasiladas’ Bath, should cost about Birr80 return.
WOLLEKA (FALASHA VILLAGE)
Around 6km north of Gonder several ‘Star of David’ and ‘Falasha Village’ signs point the way to what would be better described as the former Falasha village of Wolleka.
Once the home to a thriving population of Falashas or Ethiopian Jews, most were airlifted to Israel between 1985 and 1991 and today only a couple remain. Sadly, the pottery for which they were once famous has degenerated into clumsy, half-hearted art. Project Ploughshare Women’s Crafts Training Center is helping disadvantaged women rekindle this craft.
After the adoption of Christianity as the state religion, Falashas had their land confiscated for refusing to convert. To survive, many became skilled craftsmen. Recent research suggests Falashas may have provided the labour for the castle’s construction and decoration. The highlight of a trip here is to grab a glimpse of highland village life rather than Jewish monuments or culture.
City tours, which take in all the major sites, are easily arranged at the tourist information centre. Guides cost Birr150 per full day, and you can either walk, ride bikes, hop on local minibuses or charter a taxi for the day (around Birr50 per hour). For Simien Mountains tours and treks, see Planning ( p127 ).
Gorgora pop 4783 / elev 1880m
The little lakeshore town of Gorgora, 67km south of Gonder, has a slow and green tropical vibe and feels like something from the African Queen. It makes a pleasant excursion, especially for travellers interested in birds (see p116 ).
SIGHTS & ACTIVITIES
The most interesting relic of Gorgora’s former days as a temporary capital is the attractive Church of Debre Sina (Map p115 ; admission Birr30, video cameras Birr100). Built in 1608 by Emperor Susenyos’ son on the site of a 14th-century monastery, it’s decorated with fading 17thcentury polychromatic frescoes. Ask to see the ‘Egyptian St Mary’. Emperor Susenyos (reigned 1607–32) built a palace (Map p115 ; admission free) on a peninsula 10km west of Gorgora, which can be reached in 30 minutes by road or boat. Compared with Gonder, it’s a shambles but historical architecture buffs should make the trip. Also in the area is the Portuguese Cathedral (Map p115 ; admission free) built by Susenyos. The decrepit state is evidence of his failed attempt to force Catholicism on his people.
If the lake’s waters are calling, you can visit Tana’s northern monasteries. Mendaba Medhane Alem (Map p115 ; admission Birr20, men only) hosts ancient biblical manuscripts and some of Ethiopia’s most dedicated priests, while Birgida Maryam (Map p115 ; admission Birr20, men only) is known for its 16th-century painting of Mary.
Both are around 30 minutes from Gorgora by boat. With the exception of Debre Sina, you’ll need a local guide to find most of the sights. Guides can normally be found hanging around the Gorgora Port Hotel and they charge Birr50 per person. They can also organise birdwatching trips.
SLEEPING & EATING
Gorgora Port Hotel (0581 4670003; camping Birr50.50, s/d Birr150/187, 3-bedroom cottage Birr220)
Set among a riot of flowers there’s a wide range of rooms available here: from overpriced and grubby standard rooms to good-value cottages that come with room for six and beautiful lake views. Electricity runs (sometimes!) between 6pm and 10pm. The restaurant (mains Birr7 to Birr16) has limited food.
GETTING THERE & AROUND
Two daily buses run to Gonder (Birr13, 1½ hours) at 5am and 8am. A ferry sails from Gorgora for Bahir Dar every Thursday at 6am (Birr157, 1½ days). The ferry typically overnights in Konzola, where there’s food and a couple of cheap hotels. Buy tickets at the Lake Tana Transport Enterprise office (Map p115 ; h8-11.30am & 2-5.30pm
Mon-Fri, 8am-noon Sat). Boats for touring the monasteries out on the lake are available through either this same office for Birr150 per hour, or they can also be organised with the staff at the Gorgora Port Hotel from Birr133.