Gondar’s Royal Enclosure - A view from our expert author

Gondar Ethiopia by Ariadne Van Zandbergen Africa Image Library

Six castles, a complex of connecting tunnels and raised walkways, and several smaller buildings. It’s a fascinating place to explore.

The Fasil Ghebbi (Royal Enclosure) lies at the heart of modern Gondar and gives the city much of its character. Surrounded by high stone walls, the enclosure covers an area of 70,000m² and contains six castles, a complex of connecting tunnels and raised walkways, and several smaller buildings. It’s a fascinating place to explore, and one could easily spend several hours here. At the gate an entrance fee of US$6 is levied. Tickets are only valid for the day of purchase and include still photography. A video camera attracts an additional fee of US$5. For a first-time visitor, hiring an official guide is recommended. They are generally quite knowledgeable and will point out features that might otherwise be missed. Guide fees start at around US$9 for a group of one to five persons; it is best that you first walk around under their tuition, then return on your own later to soak up some of the atmosphere.

The most impressive castle within the enclosure is the original built by Fasilidas, c1640, partially restored in the mid 20th century, and more fully restored, using the original construction methods, with UNESCO funding between 1999 and 2002. Fasilidas’s Castle is made of stone and shows a unique combination of Portuguese, Axumite and even Indian influences. The ground floor consists of reception and dining areas. The walls are decorated with a symbol similar to the Star of David, which became the emblem of the Ethiopian royal family after the Solomonic dynasty reclaimed the throne in the 13th century. The first-floor roof of the castle was used for prayer and religious ceremonies, and it is also where Fasilidas addressed the townsfolk. Fasilidas’s prayer room, also on the first floor, has four windows, every one of which faces a church. Stairs lead from the roof to the small second-floor room that Fasilidas used as his sleeping quarters. Above this is an open balcony, which was probably the watchtower. This third-floor platform, 32m above the ground, offers views in all directions; on a clear day, you can even see Lake Tana on the horizon, emphasising the strategic advantage of choosing Gondar as a capital.

Extracted from the tour of the Royal Enclosure in Ethiopia: the Bradt Guide.

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