Explore The Wonders Of Gondar
Travel+Leisure India|November 2021
Located in the easternmost peninsula of the continent, the Horn of Africa, Gondar served as Ethiopia’s capital from 1632 to 1855. Today, it is full of magnificent monuments.
Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy

IT MADE NO SENSE. Why on earth should a hotel in Northern Ethiopia be called Florida? “It’s an acronym for the owner’s family members—Fatima, Lola, Omar, Redwan, Iyman, Dawit, and Apabu, the owner,” the manager explained conspiratorially. Florida International would serve as our base to explore Gondar, and its name would prove to be the smallest of the surprises the historic city would throw at us.

It was May 2019—before the pandemic changed the world as we knew it—and after an eventful trip to Zambia, we were making a stopover in Ethiopia on the way back to India. Our articulate guide Charlie, an MA in Social Anthropology from the University of Gondar, met us outside the town’s centrepiece Fasil Ghebbi, inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. The royal enclosure housed the only castle in Sub-Saharan Africa, earning Gondar the label ‘Camelot of Africa’. Until the 16th century, Ethiopia’s Solomonic emperors had no fixed capital but lived in royal tented camps. They spent the rainy season near Lake Tana, and the encampments at Emfraz, Ayba, and Gorgora flourished into towns.

For centuries, Orthodox Christians held sway over Ethiopia, but in the late 1500s, they lost to the Somali Adal Sultanate. To aid the beleaguered Ethiopians, explorer Vasco da Gama’s son, Christopher, took 400 musketeers from Goa to Massawa and marched via Eritrea to Gorgora. Under Portuguese influence, Susenyos, the king of Ethiopia, accepted Catholicism as the state religion. After the Orthodox Christians defeated the Muslims, Susenyos’s son, Fasilides, came to power. But lakeside Gorgora was ravaged by malaria, so in 1635, King Fasilides decided to create his first stable capital at Gondar, 35 kilometres north of Lake Tana in the Ethiopian highlands.

According to Amharic traditions, a buffalo led the emperor to a pool beside River Angreb where an old hermit advised him to establish his capital. Folklore apart, the location was of strategic importance. Situated between two rivers and fortified by seven mountains, it was close to ports like Sudan and Massawa and lay at the centre of caravan trade routes to Egypt, Yemen, the Middle East, and Timbuktu. An altitude of 2,260 metres gave it a bracing climate. The city was called Gon-dar or ‘main town’.

Fasilides had the pool filled, built a castle and two churches— Fit Mikael and Fit Abbo—as an offering to end epidemics.

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