Gondar or Gonder (Ge’ez: ጎንደር Gōnder, older ጐንደር Gʷandar, modern pronunciation Gʷender) is a city in Ethiopia, which was once the old imperial capital and capital of the historic Begemder Province. As a result, the old province of Begemder is sometimes referred to as Gondar. Located in the Semien Gondar Zoneof the Amhara Region, Gondar is north of Tana Lake on the Lesser Angereb Riverand southwest of the Simien Mountains. The city has a latitude and longitude of12°36′N 37°28′E with an elevation of 2133 meters above sea level. The city is nicknamed “The Camelot of Africa” due to the presence of a group of royal castles.
Until the 16th century, the Solomonic Emperors of Ethiopia usually had no fixed capital, instead living in tents in temporary royal camps as they moved around their realms while their family, bodyguard and retinue devoured surplus crops and cut down nearby trees for firewood. One exception to this rule was Debre Berhan, founded by Zara Yaqob in 1456; Tegulet in Shewa was also essentially the capital during the first century of Solomonic rule.
Beginning with Emperor Menas in 1559, the rulers of Ethiopia began spending the rainy season near Lake Tana, often returning to the same location again and again. These encampments, which flourished as cities for a short time, include Emfraz, Ayba,Gorgora, and Dankaz.
Gondar was founded by Emperor Fasilidesaround the year 1635, and grew as anagricultural and market town. There was a superstition at the time that the capital’s name should begin with the letter ‘Gʷa’ (modern pronunciation ‘Gʷe’; Gonder was originally spelt Gʷandar), which also contributed to Gorgora’s (founded as Gʷargʷara) growth in the centuries after 1600. Tradition also states that a buffalo led the Emperor Fasilides to a pool beside the Angereb, where an “old and venerable hermit” told the Emperor he would locate his capital there. Fasilides had the pool filled in and built his castle on that same site. The emperor also built a total of seven churches; the first two, Fit Mikael and Fit Abbo, were built to end local epidemics. The five emperors who followed him also built their palaces in the town.
Fasilides Castle, founded by EmperorFasilides.
In 1668, as a result of a church council, the Emperor Yohannes I ordered that the inhabitants of Gondar be segregated by religion. This caused the Muslims to move into their own quarter, Islamge(Ge’ez: እስላምጌ “Islam place,” or “Islam country”) or Islam Bet (እስላም ቤት “House of Islam,” lit. “Islam house”), within two years. This quarter came to be known as Addis Alem.
During the seventeenth century, the city’s population is estimated to have exceeded 60,000. Many of the buildings from this period survive, despite the turmoil of the eighteenth century. By the reign ofIyasu the Great, Gondar had acquired a sense of community identity; when the Emperor called upon the inhabitants to decamp and follow him on his campaign against the Oromo in Damot and Gojjam, as had the court and subjects of earlier emperors, they refused. Although Gondar was by any definition a city, it was not a melting pot of diverse traditions, nor Ethiopia’s window to the larger world, according to Donald Levine. “It served rather as an agent for the quickened development of the Amhara’s own culture. And thus it became a focus of national pride… not as a hotbed of alien custom and immorality, as they often regard Addis Ababa today, but as the most perfect embodiment of their traditional values.” As Levine elaborates in a footnote, it was an orthogenetic pattern of development, as distinguished from an heterogenetic one.
An overview of the medieval city buildings.
The town served as Ethiopia’s capital until Tewodros II moved the Imperial capital toMagadala upon being crowned Emperor in 1855; the city was plundered and burnt in 1864, then devastated again in December, 1866. Abdallahi ibn Muhammad sacked Gondar when he invaded Ethiopia June 1887. Gondar was ravaged again in 23 January in the next year, when the Sudanese invaders set fire to almost every one of the city’s churches.
After the conquest of Ethiopia by the Kingdom of Italy in 1936, Gondar was further developed under Italian occupation. During the Second World War, Italian forces made their last stand in Gondar in November 1941, after Addis Ababa fell to British forces six months before. The area of Gondar was one of the main centers of activity of Italian guerrilla against the British forces until summer 1943.
During the Ethiopian Civil War, the forces of the Ethiopian Democratic Union gained control of large parts of Begemder, and during parts of 1977 operated within a few miles of Gondar, and appeared to be at the point of capturing the city. As part of Operation Tewodros near the end of the Civil War, Gondar was captured by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front in March 1991.
Points of interest
Crowds gather at the Fasilides’ Bath in Gondar to celebrate Timkat – the Epiphany for theEthiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.
Gondar traditionally was divided into several neighborhoods or quarters: Addis Alem, where the Muslim inhabitants dwelled (as mentioned above); Kayla Meda, where the adherents ofBeta Israel lived; Abun Bet, centered on the residence of the Abuna, or nominal head of theEthiopian Church; and Qagn Bet, home to the nobility. Gondar is also a noted center of ecclesiastical learning of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, and known for having 44 churches, for many years more than any other settlement in Ethiopia. Gondar and its surrounding countryside constitute the homeland of most Ethiopian Jews.
The modern city of Gondar is popular as a tourist attraction for its many picturesque ruins in the Royal Enclosure, from which the Emperors once reigned. The most famous buildings in the city lie in the Royal Enclosure, which incl