Most striking are the ruins of the 17th century churches. Two have survived from Islamic revolts (Mahdist invasion) and WW2 (Allies’ bombing) over the years. Now, UNESCO takes care of what remains of Gonder’s historical buildings, and what remains is well worth visiting.
Things to do
Visit the Royal Enclosure (Fasil Ghebbi)
Home to the main historical attractions in the city, the Royal Enclosure (Fasil Ghebbi) lies at the heart of Gonder and provides the city with much of its charm. Enclosed by domineering stone walls, the vast enclosure contains six castles.
Stroll through history in Fasiladas’ Castle
Standing at a lofty height of 32 meters and made of roughly hewn stones, the Fasiladas Castle is the oldest and most impressive castle within the enclosure. This stone castle displays a unique combination of Portuguese, Axumite and Indian influences.
The main floor was used as dining halls and a formal reception area. The walls are decorated with a symbol similar to the Star of David, which became the emblem of the Ethiopian royal family. One floor up is Fasiladas’ prayer room. This room has windows in four directions, each overlooking Gonder’s important churches. Religious ceremonies were held on the roof, and it was from here you can imagine Fasiladas addressing his townsfolk in a bygone era.
Stop off at Iyasu’s Palace
After spending time at Fasilides’ Castle, look for the skeletal shell of the Palace of Iyasu I. Known for his quick and piercing wit, Iyasu I is considered the greatest ruler of the “Gonderine period”. His palace used to be sumptuously decorated with gilded Venetian mirrors and chairs, and gold leaf, ivory and beautiful paintings adorning the walls. Today it is mostly a shell, but still interesting to walk among the ruins and imagine what once was.
Visit Fasilides' Bath
After visiting the several castles inside the Royal Enclosure, you can make your way to Fasilides’ Bath, only 2kms away. The Fasilides’ Bath (“Fasil Mewagna”, as the locals tend to call it), is composed of a rectangular pond, or pool, with a tiny lion-shape castle-like building on its side. There are huge, snake-like tree roots growing through the stone holding the pool’s walls.
It is believed that the complex was used for swimming, though today it is used for religious ceremonies, notably the Timkat celebration, where pilgrims immerse themselves in the water as a renewal of their faith. This is one of the best preserved historical places in Gonder and a worthwhile stopover not only for the history and photographic opportunities but also the magnificent architecture. No need for an additional entry price as it is included in the ticket price to the royal enclosure.
Debre Birhan Selassie Church
Known for its beautiful examples of Ethiopian church art, Debre Birhan Selassie was built in the 17th Century by Emperor Eyasu II. “Debre Birhan”, Amharic for “Mountain of Light”, was the Emperor’s nickname and was chosen in honor of the church bearing the same name in Shewa.
Built of stone and contained under a two-tiered thatched roof, every centimeter of the wall and roof is covered by paintings which depict biblical scenes, saints, and icons of the Holy Trinity. Flash photography is strictly forbidden and you can get a tour from a local on-site priest for a small donation, who will give you some added appreciation of the art.
Head to the Simien Mountains
A stark contrast from the seemingly endless man-made attractions in Gondar, the landscape of Simien Mountains is a truly stunning, out-of-this-world display of nature’s creativity. Highland ridges reaching 3600 meters above sea level can be seen covered with lush grass vegetation, as well as other isolated trees, only to suddenly dip into valleys and plateaus, opening into vistas of greenery. Aside from the flora, you may also catch a glimpse of the endemic Walia Ibex and Simien Fox along with other spectacular species roaming the hills. Simien Mountains can be explored as intensively as you or your fitness level would allow; however, there is a good bit of trekking involved regardless of your choice.