The Medieval City of Gondar, Ethiopia
Gondar, Ethiopia sits high and proud 7,500 feet above sea level with mountains rising on every side and Lake Tana gleaming in the distance. The site of the city was well chosen for defense because it spreads over the top of a ridge making access to it difficult from any direction.
For 200 years during Ethiopia’s middle ages in the 17th and 18th Centuries, the kings of Gondar ruled much of Northern Ethiopia. In 1632 King Fasilides selected Gondar as his capital, and it soon became the political and cultural center of the country. Although the civilization of Axum was one of the main strings of Ethiopian culture, the achievements of the Middle Ages, centered in Gondar, have had a great influence on the nation.
After the decline of the Zagwe Dynasty at Lalibela, Ethiopia was ruled by kings who moved the court with them from place to place in Northern Ethiopia. Moslem armies sought to penetrate the highlands and under Ahamed Gran in the 16th Century, burned Axum and defeated the Ethiopian armies. By this time the Portuguese had established contact with the Kingdom of Prestor John and sent Christopher da Gama, a son of Vasco, to help Ethiopia fight the Moslem armies. After the death of Ahamed Gran, Portuguese missionaries sought to convert the Ethiopians to Roman Catholicism but failed. By the 17th Century, the period of long religious conflict with the Moslems and Portuguese was passing and a new epoch was ready to be added to Ethiopian history.
King Fasilides and his dynasty built some of the most remarkable buildings in Africa, and Gondar became an imperial walled city of towers and castles. Although influenced by Portuguese design, the castles emerge as thoroughly and uniquely Ethiopian.
The largest castle is four stories high and was built of rough-cut stones and lime mortar with cedar doors, beams, and furniture. It is a large rectangular building with a grand outside staircase, a watchtower, and four semi-detached rough turrets at the corners. Around the great castle of King Fasilides is a stately group of castles with their turrets, narrow windows, dungeons, and staircases all surrounded by a battlement wall with twelve gates. Once centers of authority and government, these feudal fortresses seem lonely and deserted now, perhaps remembering when the Temple of Love, the House of Songs, and the Paradise Gardens Pulsated with life.
During the years when Gondar was the capital of Ethiopia, a number of visitors from Europe and other continents reached Gondar and returned home to tell with amazement what they had seen. At the end of the 17th Century, a French diplomat described the great palaces of Gondar with rich decorations, beautifully carved furniture and the emperor’s gold throne. More than 50 years later the Scotchman James Bruce came to Gondar where he lived several years. He visited the source of the Blue Nile which he claimed to have discovered, and his books about Ethiopia received wide circulation in the English-speaking world.