Roadtrip Day 11: Castles, a Church and a Dance Off in Gondar

Sunday 14th January, 2018

After a lovely hot shower and a very nice and relaxing breakfast with an amazing view, we head into Gondar.

Gondar is located in the Amhara region, and is famous for having been the seat of the Ethiopian Emperors, and capital of Ethiopia from the 17th to the 19th century. Until then the rulers of the Empire moved from place to place, living in royal camps with food being provided by the local farmers.

In 1636 Emperor Fasilides ended that tradition by declaring Gondar to be the capital and seat of the Empire. The Royal Enclosure in the centre of town contains six castles, all built between the 1650’s and the 1750’s. Dominating the site is the massive 17th century castle of Emperor Fasilides, which combines a range of different architectural styles, Indian, Portugues, Moorish and Aksumite, making it a unique building.

We hired a guide at the entrance next to the ticket booth, and had a very informative walk with him around and through the castles, stables, baths, library and the cages where pet lions were kept. Although completely empty, the buildings have been well preserved and restored thanks to Unesco funding. The story of the rise and fall of Gondar, the conspiracies, complots and assassinations that heralded its end, are fascinating. Reminiscent of a Shakespeare play!

Fasilides Castle, Mike as scale
Fasilides Archives

As we leave the Royal Enclosure we stumble onto a colourful parade of horses and riders. They are apparently re-enacting the arrival of the first cannon in the royal enclosure. Emperor Tewodros (1855 – 1868) achieved his greatest ambition by building a cannon, introducing new technology to Ethiopia and providing a defence against foreign incursions. He was unsuccessful in the end though, as his army was defeated by British Forces he committed suicide by biting down on a pistol and shooting himself.

Young man on a horse as part of the re-enactment group

Mike and Frank head back to the hotel for an early Bedele (beer) and pizza.

Lina and I went to visit the Selassi Church (Debre Birhan Selassie), known for its colourful wall and ceiling paintings. There is so much to see, but the ceiling catches the eye immediately, it is covered in more than a hundred cherub faces.

Legend goes that Archangel Michael defended this church with a flaming sword from those that destroyed all the other churches in Gondar.

As we walk around there, the priests and monks are starting to chant. And then the drumming starts. With Christmas over, this is the precursor for TimKat (epiphany), which we will celebrate in a couple of days.

Debre Birhan Selassi
Ceiling with over 100 cherub faces
Drumming and Chanting

We took a tuk tuk back to the hotel (only 50 Birr), and spend time relaxing and doing some laundry. I even braved the freezing pool for a couple of minutes, enjoying the view over Gondar while paddling.

We needed the rest as we had a busy evening planned. First off we headed to Day Three of the wedding of an employee of Lina’s company. Day three is the cake cutting and whiskey ceremony. We scooted in at the back of the party tent, trying not to be noticed. Needless to say, that didn’t work out completely, and were ushered forward to congratulate the bride and groom on the stage.

The party was in full swing with lots of Ethiopian shoulder dancing. Men and women in seperate groups, challenging one another. There was a great atmosphere, fun and happiness!

Ethiopian Wedding – Day Three

We then had a lovely claypot dinner with Lina’s brother, sister and brother in law. The meat is put in a small charcoal burner and slowly becomes crisper. You scoop up small pieces using the injera bread.

Enjoying the Claypot dinners

And to round the night off, we went to a traditional Ethiopian night club. This is one of the few places left that still has a real bard. It is very small, and very dark inside, with small benches set up in squares.

Bards traditionally moved from village to village, and sang stories. In this club, the resident bard will make up a song on the spot about you. If you appreciate the bard, or the fiddler and drummer that accompany him or her, you are expected to press a 100 Birr note to their forehead. They will then (hopefully) move on to the next person.

We all had a go at traditional Ethiopian shoulder dancing, and I ended up having a dance off with a beautiful young lady in traditional dress from a wedding party. A very late night, we had a ball!!!!!!

For a short introduction to Ethiopian shoulder dancing a clip from YouTube:

Travel Details and Tips:

Accomodation: Goha hotel, Gondar. Not cheap, but an amazing location with great views and excellent hospitality.

Tip 1: Ensure you have enough 50 and 100 Birr notes on you! The entrance fee for churches and other historical places is generally 100 Birr for foreigners, so a wad of those notes will do nicely!

Tip 2: There are special restaurants that do Ethiopian cultural nights for tourists in the larger places like Gondar and Addis Ababa. They are a good way to get a feel for the music and dancing. However, there is no substitute for attending a local place if you have a local friend to take you there!

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