Debre Birhan Selassie Church - part 2
You may think that you are looking at a fortress with towers and impossibly thick defensive walls when you first arrive at this church. You are. The church is surrounded by 12 rounded towers complete with holes to shoot weapons from. These towers represent the 12 Apostles but were built for military purposes. The entrance, or 13th tower, is shaped like the Lion of Judea.
So why the need for all these defence? The Priest explained to me that there used to be over 100 such churches like this around Gonder. Now there are only a dozen. Over the centuries Muslim raiders from Sudan have attacked and burned these brightly painted churches, so defences were necessary.
Fortunately this jewel remains.
- Religious Travel
- Historical Travel
- Family Travel
visit simien mountains
the highlight of any Ethiopian trip are Simien mountains with its spectacular landscapes view , flora and fauna
It is home to a number of endangered species, including the Ethiopian wolf and the walia ibex, a wild goat found nowhere else in the world. The gelada baboon and the caracal, a cat, also occur within the Simien Mountains. More than 50 species of birds inhabit the park, including the impressive bearded vulture, or lammergeier, with its 10-foot (3m) wingspan.
- Hiking and Walking
visit Royal castles of Gondar
The town of Gonder is often described as ‘The Camelot of Ethiopia’, and when you approach the Royal Enclosure, situated in the middle of the town, it’s easy to understand why. The city itself was founded by the Emperor Fasiladas around 1635, and soon became dominated by a collection of almost European looking castles and buildings, still standing in an excellent state of preservation today. Different stories abound as to who built them – some say Portuguese craftsmen, others believe they were built by Ethiopian hands. Whatever the truth, the Royal Enclosure has to be one of the most of the most striking and unusual sights in all of Africa, standing as it does in utter contrast to everything around. The highlight is without a doubt the two storey Fasiladas’ Palace, an almost intact fortress castle complete with turrets and battlements. The complex also houses many other intriguing buildings, including a library, chancellery, a lion house and many other palaces
visit DEBRE BERHAN SELASSIE CHURCH
The superbly preserved church of Debre Berhan Selassie is seen
by many as Ethiopia’s finest, it’s not hard to see why. Dating back
to the seventeenth century, it was the only original Gondar church
to escape destruction at the hands of the Dervish of Sudan in the
19th-century, reputedly saved by a swarm of bees. The interior of
the church contains amazing frescoes dating back centuries, and
even the ceiling is completely covered with religious images.
VISIT FASILADAS BATH
an almost intact fortress castle complete with turrets and
battlements. The complex also houses many other intriguing
buildings, including a library, chancellery, a lion house and many
The construction of this residential complex on the hills, at 4km north west of the city, is attributed to Queen Mentwab. Some texts say that the widow empress (her husband was murdered by his enemies) decided to build this castle to escape from the court’s intrigues and conspiracies. Other texts say that Mentwab was very keen of young boys and this castle allowed her to stay far from the court’s gossip. I prefer the “castle of love” version which is more folkloric ;-)
You arrive to the complex through a steep and unpaved path. People enter the surrounding wall from the west and the first thing that one can see is a modern round church without any indications so some visitors can get confused. Go on walking and behind the church you will see some distinct Gonder structures (picture 2). The complex was damaged by British bombing but you still can distinguish a chapel, the castle and the queen’s rooms. The most beautiful building is the palace, where banquets and receptions took place (picture 1). There is nothing inside and some restoration /reconstruction works are in progress but its main façade is very interesting with some decoration made with volcanic tuff (picture 3). Ask the guardian to open the oratory for you: inside the skeletons of Queen Mentwab, her son and grandson will greet you (picture 4).
The visit of both Qousquam Castle and Fasiladas’ Baths can be a nice excursion from the city centre that will keep you busy for few hours. If you are in a hurry or it is very hot, contract a rickshaw in Gonder but be sure that the driver knows the way: Fasiladas’ Baths are well known by locals but Qousquam castle is a little off the beaten path. Be also ready to jump out the rickshaw from time to time on the way to Qousquam: some parts of the path are really steep! (picture 5)
This is a nice excursion at only few kilometres from the city centre. Fasiladas baths consist in a small pavilion surrounded by a huge swimming pool. This small oasis, encircled by a fortified wall with beautiful shady junipers (picture 4), was the relaxing place of the Kings of Gondar. King Iyasou II seemed to be very fond of this place and used it also for opulent feasts for his court. The architecture of this building corresponds to the Gonder Style – an Arabic base with some European Baroque touches -. It is a massive two story construction standing on pier arches which were covered by water most of the time (picture 2). You reach the main floor by a stone bridge. We found this space empty, without furniture (picture 3), so it is difficult to imagine how its inhabitants used it. The second floor must have contained the bedrooms. It has a balcony and a huge terrace with beautiful views but we were not allowed to visit it because of some restoration works. In fact all the building was covered by scaffoldings which spoiled the pictures :-(
Nowadays the huge swimming pool is only filled with water for Timkat festivity, between 19th and 20th January. The Timkat is one of the most beautiful religious festivities in Ethiopia which commemorates Jesus’ baptism. After a kind of ceremony around the pool, people jump into the water to have a bath and play. A man showed me an old picture about this celebration: with all those people dressed in white and with colourful umbrellas, it must be a special and beautiful moment.
THE LAST STOP BEFORE SIMIEN MOUNTAINS
If you are coming from the south of the country, Gonder is the last important stop before Simien Mountains. In the bus station you will find direct buses that go to Debark, (departure by 6.00am) the Simiens’ headquarter town. I have read on some guidebooks (and you will have different proposals in the city) that Gonder is a good place to arrange all the logistics for your hikes. To be honest, I think that it is not a good idea because Simien’s headquarters in Debark has everything that you need and at better prices. Use Gonder to buy some sophisticated food like soups or good coffee (we did not find that at Debark) and maybe also some medicines or other first aid stuff.
DEBRE BIRHAN SELASSIE CHURCH
This church is a real wonder and if you visit Ethiopia you cannot miss it. Built at the end of the 18th century on the top of a hill, it is famous for its stunning pictures that decorate the inside walls. Like all the buildings that I visited in Gonder, this church is surrounded by an enclosure with several towers covered with egg-shaped domes (picture 2). In this case the number of towers is 12 symbolising the 12 apostles. The 13th tower, the biggest one, represents Christ and it is used as entrance gate. Take your time and walk around the walls before going inside: hidden among exuberant vegetation there are some surprises (picture 3).
The church corresponds to a basilica type –which is very common in the north of the country- with a quadrangular plan lined up direction west-east (picture 4). It is surrounded by a beautiful veranda and has doors on three sides: west, north and south while the east side is sacred and closed. People enter to the church from the main door in the west side (the darkness) and move forward to the sancta sanctorum in the east (the light) where the tabot is kept but only opened to clergy. Inside, the main wall shows the Trinity -always represented by three old bearded man- surrounded by the symbols of the apostles (picture 5). Above, the scene of the crucifixion and king Egwala Seyon at the foot of the cross. Other remarkable paintings are the knights- saints, Christ’s life on the north wall and an enchained devil on the south. But the most famous paintings in this church are the uncountable winged cherubs that invade the wooden roof looking at the four directions with their almond eyes (picture 1). Try to count them!
Flash is not permitted inside but the impassive priest will accept all kind of immobile positions to get good pictures. It seems that he is used to it!
Churches and monasteries hide ancient paintings created with a style that came from Byzantium and has not changed since then. The designs remind the parishioners the truth of their faith. The colour is as important as the shape having both the purpose to catch the observer’s mind and spirit. The topics are always the same: the Virgin (very venerated in Ethiopia), the Trinity, the saints’ life and Saint George killing the dragon.
If you enlarge the second picture you will see two kinds of design for people: good people (saints, etc) have round face with almond eyes and serene expressions; bad people have long face with ugly expressions and almost all the times are seen from the side (a profile nose and only one eye).
You can spend hours and hours admiring these paintings, walls are a kind of comic strip telling you lots of stories. In fact it was the only way for illiterate people to know about the Holy Scriptures. If you like photography don’t forget to bring your tripod as the light is faint. If it happens to you to visit the churches during a power failure, which IS NOT very rare, then there is not hope for good pictures.
The religious architecture in Ethiopia is unique with a strong personality. Ethiopian Orthodox churches follow the same patterns since the 16th century. In the South of the country they have circular, hexagonal or octagonal shape which reflects the native building tradition in their round shape, materials and building techniques (picture 1). In the North of the country instead, the most used type is the basilica with quadrangular plan(picture 2). Both types are surrounded by a covered veranda. They usually have three doors –at west, north and south- while the eastern side is sacred and closed. Around the churches there is always a wide open space where people can pray and attend to ceremonies, usually with benches and exuberant vegetation. Big trees offer shady corners for the hottest months. The interior is reserved for the pure ones and the sancta sanctorum (the innermost part) at the centre of the building - or at the East in the quadrangular types - is open only to clergy. Inside it is kept the tabot, a replica of the Tables of the Law given to Moses, on a kind of wooden box.
With its four egg-domed towers, this is the most imposing monument and also the oldest one. You can see the shape of its quadrangular tower, nowadays decorated with the Ethiopian flag, even before entering the site. This castle was built by king Fasiladas to be used as residence and reception palace. No doubt that by that time the palace was a good presentation card: the entrance gate with its huge stairs is very imposing and for sure left Fasiladas’ visitors breathless. The main floor was used as dinning and reception room. There is no furniture and only some faint frescoes are still visible (picture 2) but its past grandeur is still perceptible. The first floor had a private character and was used as Fasiladas’ prayer room. This space has 4 windows looking each one at four important churches in the kingdom. The huge terrace seems to have been used for religious celebrations too. The second floor corresponded to Fasiladas’ bedrooms but I did not find the way to climb so I could not visit them. From the entrance gate we saw some people on the roof but I don’t know if they were visitors or workers.
Go around the castle before leaving. There are small but interesting egg-domed constructions of unknown use (picture 3). Maybe there were ovens or food stores.
Fasil Ghebi is the royal ensemble in Gonder. Its more than 900 m long walls close inside different palaces and buildings built by Emperor Fasiladas and his successors, from 1632 until 1770. Fasil Ghebi is the most important example of a unique architectural style called “Gonder Style”: a mixing of Arabic style with Baroque influences brought by Portuguese missionaries using Indian construction techniques brought by masons from Goa. This style will mark the architecture of the city in the 17th century and visitor will find massive constructions with egg-domed towers everywhere. The result looks a piece of Medieval Europe moved to Ethiopia.
The most interesting buildings are Fasilada’s palace (picture 2) and Iyasou’s palace, Fasilada’s archive(picture 3 ) and Bakaffa’s palace with its impressive banqueting hall and stables (picture 1). The most curious site is for sure the Lions’ house with some lion cages still left (don’t forget a commemorative picture playing the lion here!). The three churches of the ensemble have separated entrance gates and maybe separated entrance tickets but I am not sure about that because I was not interested in visiting them.
The site of Fasil Ghebi is huge and there are not a lot of indications inside. Although it is funny to pop from one construction to the nearest one trying to imagine how the king and his court lived, you can miss like this a lot of interesting details and maybe some stories of love and intrigue. A good guidebook with a site map and some descriptions could be a good idea for your walk. If not, at the entrance gate there are always some university students ready to play the guide for some Birrs.
We arrived to Gonder by road from Lalibela, changing bus in Debre Tabor. It was a 7-8 hours trip and the last kilometres were through an unpaved road with some construction works so I did not arrive in my best conditions. The bus station was very chaotic and as we got off the bus some locals came to offer their taxi and other services. We escaped from there by foot and after walking few metres we reached the city centre. The centre corresponds to the old Italian quarter. It was very busy and noisy, with lots of cars and Bajas (motorised rickshaws) everywhere. Some Italian style buildings must have been beautiful some time ago but they did not attire my attention that day. Improvised stalls on the sidewalks offered some fruits and vegetables which put some colour in the street scene. In the middle of this “bordello”, the royal enclosure appeared as a sleepy oasis from other times.
Gonder is an easy walking city and as soon as you take the hilly streets that leave the centre, crowds disappear, colours become more green and you can breath fresh air again. I did not find Gonder very touristy and, like in Bahir Dar, locals have many facilities to spend their free time: gardens and terraces, restaurants or local pubs. I found it also very equipped with many churches (not for tourists), pharmacies, post office and even some specialised bookshops. Gonder was a good choice to spend some time before the big hike.
THE "G POINT"
The history of Gonder is related to the "G point”. Emperor Fasiladas’s predecessors did not have a fixed capital. The Emperor and his court lived in tents and moved from one place to another depending on the grain of the close villages and the wood from the forests.
In 1636 Gonder, a small and secondary village, was chosen by King Fasiladas to build his empire. Tradition tells us about an archangel who prophesied to King Lebna Denguel the future of his dynasty and told him that the initial letter of their new capital would be letter “G”. King Sarsa Denguel chose the city of Gouzara and King Susenyos moved the capital to Gorgora. It seems that King Fasiladas found his capital following a buffalo until Gonder when he was hunting. He converted Gonder in a beautiful and wealthy city with several imposing castles and forty four churches. King Fasiladas (1632-1667) was a good king and warrior who re-established the traditional faith (his father had converted to Catholicism) and built many constructions and bridges to improve the communication in the country. His successors went on with the construction of the royal enclosure (Fasil Ghebi) and beautiful gardens, banquet halls, and libraries were added during the following years. Gonder became the city of arts, crafts and impressive feasts attracting visitors from all the world. But this Camelot in Africa was also the city of intrigue, conspiracy and assassination. In fact, only four monarchs were in the power during the so called Gonder Period.
Gonder was the capital of the Ethiopian empire from 1636 until 1864, when Emperor Texwdoros II moved the capital to Magadala in 1885.