Capital of Ethiopia for more than two centuries prior to the foundation of Addis Ababa, the city of GONDAR lies at a temperate elevation of around 2200m in the fertile hills that separate Lake Tana from the loftier Simien Mountains. Significantly larger than either Aksum or Lalibela, it is often referred to as the “Camelot of Africa”, thanks to the impressive collection of European and Indian-influenced stone castles built by Emperor Fasil (reigned 1632–67) and his successors. The central Fasil Ghebbi, or Royal Enclosure, which includes six such castles, is the city’s main focal point, but other important sites include the beautifully painted suburban church of Debre Birhan Selassie and the more remote, haunting Kuskuam complex, founded by the Empress Mentewab in 1730.
Well equipped with hotels, restaurants and bars, Gondar’s compact and pedestrian-friendly centre, known as the Piazza, is a pleasant place to chill out between bus journeys. The city is also the usual springboard for hikes into Simien Mountains National Park, 120km to the north.
Gondar emerged as the imperial capital in the wake of a protracted period of upheaval in the Lake Tana basin. During the sixteenth century, its hinterland had staged a series of brutal conflicts between the Christian empire and an Islamic army led by Ahmed Gragn and his successors. This was followed in the 1620s by a religious purge led by Emperor Susenyos, whose conversion to Catholicism (influenced by the self-same Portuguese Jesuits that supported the imperial cause against Gragn) left the ruler at odds with his predominantly Orthodox subjects.
In 1632, the unpopular Susenyos abdicated in favour of his son Fasil (or Fasilidas), who restored stability by evicting the Jesuits from his empire, and established a fixed capital at the village of Gondar three years later. Fasil selected Gondar for its strategic hilltop location, but may also have been influenced by an ancient tradition stating that the next permanent imperial capital would have an initial G. The three-storey castle he built here is the most impressive structure of its type in Ethiopia, while the market, located at the crossroads of three caravan routes, formed the focal point around which Gondar would mushroom into a city of 60,000 by the mid-1660s.
Gondar remained the centre of imperial affairs under Fasil’s immediate successors Yohannis I (reigned 1667–82) and the popular Iyasu I (reigned 1682–1706). Iyasu was ousted in 1706, sparking a fifteen-year period of Catholic–Orthodox tensions during which four kings were crowned and assassinated. Stability was restored under Emperor Bakaffa (reigned 1721–30), whose son, Iyasu II (reigned 1730–55), ascended the throne under the regency of his powerful mother, the Empress Mentewab. However, Mentewab’s suspected Catholic leanings led to a renewal in religious tensions and the eventual dissipation of centralized Gondarine rule to various regional fiefdoms in the 1770s, and the town was dealt a further blow when it was sacked by the Sudanese Mahdists in 1888 and many of its finest churches were destroyed. Gondar enjoyed a revival during the Italian occupation, as evidenced by much of the architecture around the Piazza, since which it has grown to become one of Ethiopia’s largest cities, with a population of at least 300,000.