Saturday, February 2, 2013

Trip Report: Gondar

We awoke early and took a flight from Lalibela to Gondar, stopping briefly in Axum.  Gondar is known as the "Camelot of Africa" thanks to a conglomeration of medieval castles that resemble those of Europe.  You can see the castle theme throughout town.  Even the airport has the appearance of a castle.  When we got to our hotel it was about lunch time.  After a snack lunch, we headed out to explore the sights.  The castle complex was just a short walk from our hotel.  We paid admission and got a guide, Abebe, who was our most memorable of the trip.  He told us all about the history of Gondar and its role as the 3rd major capital of Ethiopia (after Axum and Lalibela). 

The castles were built in succession by several different rulers in the 1700s, following the style of other castles built by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries.  The complex is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, just like the churches of Lalibela.  The main castle is still intact and in very good condition.  Many of the other castles and buildings were bombed by Britain during World War II in an attempt to expel the Italian invaders.  There are some really neat features to the castles, including a system of guttering leading to an underground cistern and a steam house.  Other buildings on the grounds include stables and lion cages.

Our admission also included access to Fasilidas's Bath.  This is a large pool with a castle/residence in the middle.  There is some debate about the original purpose of this pool.  Our tour guide told us that it was primarily for recreation for the royal family.  Now, the pool has become the venue for an annual celebration at Timket.  Timket is the Ethiopian Orthodox celebration of Epiphany, the time when Jesus was baptised in the Jordan River.  Every year on January 19 hundreds of Ethiopians travel to Gondar and come to this location to witness as priests bless the water.  Then everyone jumps in for a renewal of their baptism.  We were in Gondar just 2 weeks before Timket and they were beginning to fill the pool.  It takes about a month to fill and then it is drained about a week after the Timket celebration and is dry the rest of the year.

We hopped in a bajaj and rode over to the Debre Birhan Selassie church, famous for the ceiling painted with hundreds of angels.  The church is not large, but a good percentage of the Bible is represented in paintings covering the walls inside.  Abebe showed us each paiting and explained the stories to us.  It was really great to see this in person after having seen pictures of this ceiling so many times.

We finished our sightseeing for the day and headed back to the hotel where we got to enjoy a New Years Eve party with traditional Ethiopian music and dancing.  We were sitting right in front and had a great view of the action.

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