Some countries hold an allure and mystery that is deeply imbedded in their ancient history, rich culture and national pride, and Ethiopia is certainly one of them. Travelling with the award winning Ethiopian Airlines earlier this year, I could at last live out a long standing dream and visit the beguiling Land of Origins, starting with time in Gondar, a place of impressive Castles and ecclesiastic churches.
A closer look at Ethiopia
Ethiopia is an ancient land with a remarkable biodiversity that is reflected across its twelve provinces and nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites. More than any other country in Africa. Within its borders, you find the world’s fourth-holiest Islamic city, the oldest continuously occupied town south of the Sahara, the mediaeval rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and Gheralta, ruined palaces and temples dating back 3000 years, the magnificent 17th century castles of Gondar, and the oldest human fossils unearthed anywhere on the planet. Making for incredible bragging rights.
In addition the beautiful Simien and Bale Mountains, and the colourful volcanic landscapes of the Danakil Depression hold mammals and birds not found anywhere else in the world, making little wonder that the country has become one of the most sought after tourist destinations in Africa.
Ethiopia was never colonised, despite desperate attempts by Italy in the late 19th Century, and is today a federal state with a stable democracy that was established in 1994. The capital Addis Ababa is the headquarters of the African Union, the UN Economic Commission for Africa and holds a regional office for a number of international organisations including UNESCO and the European Economic Commission. There’s a buzz on the air and the streets are a vibrant mix of old and new, with traditional vendors trading next to hip artisan coffee shops and designer boutiques.
Add unique music, cultural heritage and cuisine from the 80 plus Ethiopian ethnic groups, and you’ll understand why it is a country that commands as much time as you can afford to do it justice.
During my visit I toured the North of the country for a week, flying in and out of the capital Addis Ababa, into ancient Gondar, Axum and Lalibela. Here’s the first of my photo sets that offer a look at these intriguing and significant remote African cities, starting with Gondar.
Gondar in the highlands north of Lake Tana, at first sight is wide open streets with lots of tuk-tuk traffic and beautiful sloe-eyed people going about their lives wherever you look. Known for the walled Fasil Ghebbi fortress and palace compound, once the seat of Ethiopian emperors, it dominates with the immense 17th-century castle of Emperor Fasilides, which combines Portuguese, Indian and local architectural styles.
Until the seventeenth century, Ethiopia had no capital, and the ruling Empire’s moved about their territory living in tents in mobile royal camps, with food being supplied by farmers in the surrounds. The history of Gondar City begins In 1636 when Emperor Fasilides ended the tradition by decreeing Gondar to be the Ethiopia’s capital and started building the Royal Enclosure Fasil Ghebbi. It became the palace town with a large number of different palaces, 3 churches and supporting buildings.
Visit The Royal Castles
The Fasil Ghebbi Royal Enclosure is the remains of a fortress-city within Gondar. It was founded in the 17th and 18th centuries by Emperor Fasilides and was the home of Ethiopia’s emperors. Located within the 7 ha walled Royal Enclosure, the residence of Ethiopia’s government from seventeenth to the first half of the nineteenth centuries, now being part of the Gondar UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Walking the ruins of the six castles with our local specialist guide Bakele, we are talked through the unique architecture, shown the decorative tiles and brickwork and admire the architecture, arches, woodwork, masonry and symbolism that still stands centuries later.
I can almost hear the lavish parties that took place here, men and women on either side of the grand walls.
The century old ruins in the royal enclosure.
A young couple taking their wedding pictures next the castles, with the priest who married them.
With Lesley Simpson, Di Brown and Kate Turkington.
The Church of Debreberehan Selassie
The Debre Birhan Selassie (Trinity and Mountain of Light) Church was built by Emperor Eyasu II, the grandson of the great Emperor Fasilides in the 17th century, with restoration done in the 1880s following damage by marauding Sudanese Dervishes.
Built by an emperor and preserved by an archangel. This is one of Ethiopia’s top tourist attractions.
From the outside the little church is very unassuming, but once you step inside you can instantly understand why it is famed for its beautiful examples of Ethiopian art. Every inch of wall and ceiling space is covered with painted images and elaborate murals, including a ceiling with 123 winged cherubs representing the omnipresence of God.
The walls depict biblical scenes and saints. and on one end of the chapel two curtain covered doors lead to the Holy of Holies where the church’s copy of the Ark of the Covenant is kept. Above the two doors are icons of the Holy Trinity and the Crucifixion. There is much symbolism here and I recommend having a guide to talk you through it. Priests and worshippers pray quietly inside and out, and a baby blue painted collection box calls for support in this significant Church’s upkeep.
The drum used in religious ceremony.
Fasiladas’ Royal Bath
Just a short way from the piazza lies the Royal Bath, which has been attributed to both Fasiladas and Iyasu I. A large rectangular pool with a charming fort like building, thought to be a vacation home. It’s a beautiful and peaceful spot where tree roots snake around sections of the stone walls.
Although the complex was historically used for swimming (royalty would wear inflated goat-skin life jackets to ensure their safety), it was likely to have been constructed for religious celebrations, the likes of which still go on today. Once a year, it’s filled with water for the popular Timkat celebration, which draws pilgrims from around the country. After the water is blessed by the bishop, 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. But on the day of our visit the water levels were low and there was nobody but us, in sight.
Note: You must obtain your ticket at the Royal Enclosure before visiting Fasiladas’ Bath.
Listening to our guide Bakele.
Taking a contemplative moment as I imagine the thousands of people who have come to this very spot before me.
For the ceremony, the pool is flooded with water from the river and all the worshippers and pilgrims come to swim in it.
Some Gondar Street Scenes
Driving the streets between attractions, donkey carts, school children out for the day and monuments marking national heroes.
School was just out and these adorable boys with their beautiful sloe eyes wanted their photo taken.
Red, orange an blue, a woman rests on the streets under the baking sun.
Tuk-tuk traffic outside the bank.
The Goha Hotel
The night was spent at the Goha Hotel high up on a hilltop overlooking Gondar, yet only a short distance away from the royal enclosures and other major attractions. With 82 rooms and suites and excellent free high-speed WiFi, it made the perfect base. There is a large swimming pool and deck from which to take in the views, restaurant, bar with fireplace and a traditional Ethiopian restaurant and coffee service.
As we walk through the lobby, grass had been spread on the floor to welcome us home.
Coffee in the traditional restaurant.
Views towards Gondar from the hotel deck.
Remember to read my post on ‘Axum in Ethiopia. Tall obelisks and the keeper of the ark of the covenant’ | ‘Gondar. A place of impressive Castles and Ecclesiastic Churches‘, listen to my radio interview and watch the video too.
The Essential Details
- Ethiopian Airlines flies directly from Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban
- Internal fights are easily booked and the ‘Tourist Circuit’ that connects Addis Ababa with Gondor, Axum and Lalibela is efficient and convenient.
- Learn more with Ethiopian Tourism at https://www.ethiopia.travel/
- The currency is the Ethiopian Birr and you would do well to ensure that you have some cash on you as credit cards are not widely used and you will meet many people trading in beautiful jewellery,crosses and fabrics as you walk around the cities.
- It is important to dress modestly for sacred and religious visit, including head cover, long skirt and a shawl or scarf to cover your arms.
- What to Pack: Camera (ask permission to take photos, some paces are sacred and many may not want to be in your holiday snaps), light, loose clothing and comfortable walking shoes, something warm for the evenings, it does get cold here. Sunscreen and a hat as you will spend quite a bit of time outside and will want to walk the streets and get a coffee at a local stall.
- Ethiopia is an hour ahead of South Africa.
Watch my video of my whole week in Ethiopia.
At Gondor Airport with fellow traveller Gordon Triegaardt.
*I was invited as a guest of Ethiopian Airlines and Ethiopian Tourism, travelling with them and hosted throughout in collaboration with Lesley Simpson Communications, travelling to Addis Ababa, Gondor, Axum and Lalibela, exploring the ancient land.