Gondar’s Beauty

Kids at Trinity Church, Gondar

Kids at Trinity Church, Gondar

Gondar, Ethiopia is just one of those cities that you want to be in, explore and return to. It has that je ne sais quoi, the one when you’re not sure what draws you in. Sometimes it’s simply the layout of a city or the public spaces that bring a community together. It might be the cleanliness of the environment, simply being there at the right time, even the time of day you arrive when that important first impression is made.

Gondar just did it for me. It began with our drive into town and me laughing when I realized that the limp pile of goats on top of a public bus in front of me were in fact alive. And, furthermore, a small surge of excitement when we pulled up to the Taye Hotel, a fairly new hotel where I knew I’d feel more comfortable than the night before.

Fasilides' Castle, Gondar

Fasilides’ Castle, Gondar

What sold me was the first attraction I visited, Fasil Ghebbi – the ancient palace ruins of King Fasilidis.

The ruins were like those in Europe I’m used to and it was at this moment that I thought, “Perhaps I am no longer the traveller I once was.” What I mean is that I had only been in Ethiopia for five days and the simple sight of a ruin that reminded me of Europe uplifted my spirits, so pathetic I felt. This was also my first trip where I missed someone at home, someone who was going to meet up with me two weeks later. Boy, does that make a difference in relaxing and enjoying the surroundings around you.

Gondar was the capital of Ethiopia between 1600-1800 because of its higher elevation which protected it from malaria and its access to freshwater. Fasil Ghebbi, a recent Unesco World Heritage site, was known as the Camelot of Ethiopia and was built by King Fasilidis, a member of the Solomonic Dynasty. He built this 70,000 metre squared castle with 12 gates, each providing separate entrances for visiting nobles, martyrs, heroes, armies and visiting royalty; complete with a water reservoir, library, banquet halls, amphitheatre, horse stables and lion cages, it was a quintessential African palace!

You may remember that Haile Selassie exiled himself to Bath, England during the Italian occupation and this castle was used as one of their military strongholds from 1936-1941 until the British bombed the main gate in 1942. The ruins are beautiful and there are six palaces on the property as each descendant of King Fasilidis built his own palace; the stories are interesting and I loved imagining the daily events that went on in such a spectacular setting. Although, my favourite memory of this visit was towards the end when it started to pour. I asked my guide if we could run back to the main gate and he said, “Can you run fast?” I said, “I hope so, I’m half Jamaican.” He said “Good. You can run fast but I as an Ethiopian can run further.” We had a good laugh as the Olympics had recently finished with the running events dominated by both Jamaicans and Ethiopians. Poetic.

Fasildes Bath

Fasildes Bath

Next up and another favourite was King Fasilidis’ bath/swimming pool, located 3kms from the palace. This four hundred year old pool is still the largest swimming pool in the world with dimensions of 58m x 27m, Olympic pools being 50m x 25m. The pool was the recreation centre for the royal family and guests and the building in the centre provided the dressing rooms. One can only imagine the fun that was had there!

Fasilides' Bath - Dressing Room

Fasilides’ Bath – Dressing Room

Nowadays the site is used for Ethiopian Epiphany on January 19th. Attended by the prime minister of Ethiopia this beautiful ceremony called Timka, both serene and boisterous, celebrates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. The preparation begins on January 4th when water from the nearby river begins to flood into the swimming pool, taking two weeks to fill. On January 18th the procession begins in the evening, lasting for several hours. The next morning the processional begins with “a model of the Ark of the Covenant, which is present on every Ethiopian altar (somewhat like the Western altar stone), is reverently wrapped in rich cloth and born in procession on the head of the priest. The Divine Liturgy is celebrated near a stream or pool early in the morning (around 2 a.m.).

Woman in Fellasha with tribal tattoos. She had a tumour in her neck, as did her sister in the photo below, in the doorway of the synagogue.

Woman in Fellasha with tribal tattoos. She had a tumour in her neck, as did her sister in the photo below, in the doorway of the synagogue.

But the festival does not end there; by noon on Timka Day a large crowd has assembled at the ritual site, those who went home for a little sleep having returned, and the Holy Ark is escorted back to its church in colorful procession. The clergy, bearing robes and umbrellas of many hues, perform rollicking dances and songs; the elders march solemnly with their weapons, attended by middle-ages men singing a long-drawn, low-pitched haaa hooo; and the children run about with sticks and games. Dressed up in their finest, the women chatter excitedly on their one real day of freedom in the year. The young braves leap up and down in spirited dances, tirelessly repeating rhythmic songs. When the Holy Ark has been safely restored to its dwelling-place, everyone goes home for feasting.”

On the 21st of Jan the processional is over and the water is returned to the river, the pool remaining empty until the following year. If I was going to return to Gondar it would be for this ceremony. If you are planning a visit during this period you’ll want to book in advance because I hear that more than 200,000 attend and hotels fill up quickly!

Next, I visited Trinity Church, the only church out of 44 that wasn’t destroyed by the Sudanese Divirshes  in 1889; said to have been protected by swarms of honeybees. As one tends to lose track of time when travelling, I realized I was lucky to be visiting on a Sunday, especially during mass. As we drove away following our visit we passed a lone tourist and all I could think was how unfortunate it was that he missed the service, it was unforgettable.

Trinity Church Yard

Trinity Church Yard

All 44 churches have been restored and Iyusu, the grandson of King Fasilidis, founded this Trinity Church. Originally circular, Iyusu rebuilt it in a rectangular shape, imitating the shape of Ark of the Covenant. This day signified special celebration, the courtyard filled with parishioners and it was graduation day for the theology students. The chanting inside the church was monotonous, soothing and hauntingly beautiful and communion was given with injera bread, how Ethiopian!

Welcome to Fellasha

Welcome to Fellasha

The last visit of the day to Fellasha was brief, located on the outskirts of town. Fellasha is the last settlement of Ethiopian Jews who oppressed, returned to Israel in a group of more than 10,000 people in 1991. The synagogue although rustic is well-preserved for Jews when they come and visit. However, I am told that rarely happens.

Wondering what to see, how much things costs and how to book Gondar? Check out the Dirty Details. 

Do you enjoy a cup of Ethiopian Starbucks coffee every morning? Coffee is Ethiopia’s largest export and over 25% of the country’s population depends on it to make their living. It is the world’s 7th largest exporter of coffee and in itself the ritual of coffee among its people is an essential part of daily life.

The origin of coffee (kaffa) is said to have begun in Southwestern Ethiopia in the 16thC. I was told that a goat herder  names Kaledes saw his goats eating the leaves and becoming hyper so he tried the beans and saw they were a stimulant. In fact, in war, soldiers were even often given coffee beans as stimulants.

I asked how the name of the herder is known but wasn’t given a clear answer. Reminds me of how sure Ethiopians are that they hold the Ark of the Covenant when only the head priest says it’s there. Ethiopians have wonderful stories passed down from generation to generation. How much is true? I’m not sure. However, with Ethiopia being the crux of many religions it is very possible.


Coffee Beans

Coffee Beans

When it comes to preparation there are three ways to prepare coffee in Ethiopia.

1)   Dry the coffee leaves and make tea.

2)   Boil the shells and drink the watery liquid as they do in the Omo Valley. I stayed with a tribe in the Omo Valley and tried it, not a lot of taste to it. Two large grain sacs, enough for ten family members cost me 170 birr/$9.50 USD. It was my gift to the tribe for hosting me.

3)   Roast the beans. I don’t drink coffee and I hate the taste of it but I believe this is the most common way.

When it comes to serving? Some tribes drink it with butter and salt.

The ritual of drinking/enjoying coffee is to share. In restaurants there is a separate coffee area, stools set up in a circle and strangers sit with one another. In one’s home the smell of coffee permeates through the air and out the door. Neighbours are called into share, even strangers passing by become friends.

Gondar is not to be missed when visiting Ethiopia, a favourite on my trip.




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