Gondar and Ethiopia’s Castles
In 1632, King Fasilidas proclaimed that Gondar, a previously obscure village, would become the site of the Empire’s new capital. The population consequently swelled to over 60,000 and for the next 250 years, the Kings of Ethiopia ruled from Gondar. Beginning with Fasilidas, a succession of Ethiopian kings built the castles that still occupy the heart of modern day Gondar. Known collectively as the Royal Enclosure or “Fasil Ghebbi”, the castles have survived several wars, including air raids during World War Two. The site is easily accessible and recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.
On a Gondar hillside near the ruins of Qusquam Maryam (a church built by the Empress Mentewab) are a group of simple thatch-roofed huts that comprise one of the most important centers of learning for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The sparse living conditions are intended to teach humility to the priests and deacons who arrive from all over Ethiopia to study here.
Debre Birhan Selassie
Near the Royal Enclosure is a small church with some of the finest examples of art of the Orthodox Church. Nearly every inch of the church’s interior has been beautifully painted. 80 cherubic angels look down from the ceiling while saints and demons line its walls. Built by King Iyasu in the late 17th century, Debre Birhan Selassie (meaning Light of the Trinity) was miraculously spared in the Mahdist War of the 1880’s when, according to legend, a swarm of bees held off the invading soldiers.
This region was once home to the “Felasha”, or Ethiopian Jews, who emigrated en masse to Israel in the late 20th century. Although only a few remain, their influence is still seen in the symbols, customs, and rituals of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.