Gondar, not Gonder. Although I still can’t stop thinking about Lord of the Rings, and hoping that Gondar, Ethiopia will fill me with just as much wonder and inspiration. An early morning Ethiopian Airlines flight whisked me away from the bustling capital city to the more-rural North, and formal (Medieval) capital of Ethopia, Gondar.
I arrived hoping that the hotel would have a taxi waiting for me, as they promised. They didn’t. Luckily, the taxi drivers outside were extremely friendly and offered to call the hotel to see what I should do. The hotel (Taye Belay Hotel) agreed that they would pay for the fare of whichever cab I took, and so I was on my way.
It’s about a 30 minute drive to the airport, and the windy country road took me by the Dashen Beer Factory and Beer Garden, the famous regional beer, as well as Gondar University, perched atop a hill. The taxi seemed that the engine might fall out of it at any moment, but luckily we reached the hotel without any problems.
Taye Belay Hotel is located in the center of town, sitting on top of a small hill that gives great city and mountain views. It’s also within walking distance of a few major historical sites, the Fasilides Castle, the Fasilides Bath, and the Debre Berhan Selassie (more details later). In fact, this city is known as the Camelot of Ethiopia since there is a very European-style castle (Portuguese) sitting right in the middle of town.
Upon check-in to the hotel (they had my room ready quite early, at 0900!), a very friendly receptionist advised me that I could meet with man, Micky, standing nearby, who would help me arrange a program for the day. At first I thought he was a guide, but it became clear that he was a middle-man “facilitator”, and of course charged a fee for the facilitation. I think I was in “must have a guide” mode since I was spoiled over the past two weeks in Central/East Africa, and had a one-track mind at the time. The alternative would have been simply walking into town and stumbling into the castle right at the doorstep, and hiring a guide (much cheaper) onsite (400 birr or so plus entry fee, where 1 birr = 19 dollars). I was able to negotiate from 1300 birr to 1100 birr for an all day tour consisting of transportation, a guide for the castle, the bath (baptism place) and church, and a visit to the Falasha (Jewish) village.
Eventually that feeling of being ripped off wore off, especially as the tour got going and I really got along well both with my guide, Antana, and the middle-man, Mickey. It was rocky in the beginning, especially as Antana immediately went into “recitation of facts” mode at the Fasilades Castle. I listened assiduously for about 15 minutes and decided that was enough – time to make it interactive. As soon as he sensed my change of style, the dynamic shifted to more of a peer to peer rather than didact-student – much more enjoyable for both of us. Many guides wouldn’t have picked up on the subtle change in dynamic I was trying to intimate – but Antana did, which is why we ended up working out.
I did mange to remember a few (very few) things about the castle. But let’s first take a look at the pictures.
It took me a while to get passed the European-ness of the whole scene. Actually, I didn’t get passed it as much as realize that’s EXACTLY was it was, and to call a spade a spade. King Fasilides of the Solomon Dynasty founded Gondar in the 17th century, and built Fasil Ghebbi (the castle) as an homage to Portuguese art and architecture, which he greatly admired, even after expelling the Jesuits and foreign religious influence from the country. His son, Yohannes, continued the movement by expelling ALL Catholics from Ethiopia. That didn’t mean the Ethiopians couldn’t admire European art and architecture and take the best of it to integrate into Ethiopian culture.
Yohannes’ son, Iyasu, was a great fighter, lover, and spiritual leader, settling many matters of the church as as well as putting down rebellions at home. I remember Antana telling me that he was a lover and a fighter, very handsome, and a womanizer. Also I remember that he had a rare skin disorder that was cured by a French physician that introduced the sauna into the Castle complex.
This went on for a while, each son adding a personalized touch/wing to the castle, including churches, libraries, and lion cages (a lion was symbolic for the king). There was even a regent queen (Empress Mentewab) that ruled for some time until her son (Iyasu II) came of age.
As we walked from the castle to our next site, I took some pictures of people celebrating Christmas in the Ethiopian Orthodox way (Christmas is Jan 7 here).
Then we visited the Debre Berhan Selassie (Light of the Mountain) church, built by King Eyasu II, and adorned with the Gondar Cross (Meskal) on the steeple of the churc. The outside isn’t much, but the interior is spectacular. Angels painted on the ceiling accompany elaborate biblical scenes across the walls, allowing all who worship access to the rich Christian biblical history through pictures.
Antana explained the rituals that took place in the Orthodox faith, all of which are highly symbolic, with many references to the crucifixion, the trinity, the union of Heaven and Earth, and the Epiphany, when Jesus supposedly rose to heaven. Drums, staffs, and instruments are all used throughout an Ethiopian Orthodox Mass to symbolize these events in specific sequences and movements, which are prescribed similarly to what we call “Catholic gymnastics.”
Next we moved on to the Fasilides Bath, which is a baptismal castle Fasilides built to celebrate the Epiphany, or Timkut, which occurs around Jan 18. Gondar is the place to be for Timkut and Lalibela is the place to be for Christmas.
The formal guided tour ended, and I got the name of a guy in Lalibela from Antana that could help with facilitating a tour there – Abeba. I thanked Antana, and Mickey and his friend were waiting to welcome me into his home for a traditional coffee ceremony prepared by his sister. It was a one room house (made out of corrugated metal) in a larger walled complex; the room was xomplete with a bed, small sitting area (traditional stools), a TV, and internet. As we chatted, mostly about America, he put CNN on in the background, which showed a graphic of the 9/11 attack. I asked them if they had heard of it, and Mickey had, but didn’t know much, while his friend never heard of it (they were probably around 20 years old). I explained what had happened and they applauded the effort of the pilot you downed the plane in Pennsylvania.
Then Mickey recounted a bizarre story of a man he provided a tour to last year, who claimed to be Jewish, but seemed to have ties to Bin Laden and a terrorist organization. Mickey said that this man started off normal enough, but got stranger and stranger as the tour progressed, asking Mickey to find him an Ethiopian wife that was a Virgin and a Muslim, and asking to find a forged Visa to Yemen (although the guy had come from Isreal and Mickey said he claimed to be Jewish). Mickey told him to take a hike, sensing that he was dangerous and thinking that future entanglement with this man would probably send him to jail. Later that day, he said he received a call from the CIA asking him all sorts of questions about that man, Luckily he didn’t know very much.
After that, we visited the Fashilada Village, where the Ethiopian Jews used to live (now only 1 Jewish person still lives there). Here’s the original synagogue, which was unremarkable. I recommend you skip this part of the tour.
However the drive and the countryside was nice, and I got a picture of Mickey and his friend (Mickey right).I got back to the hotel around 1500, walked around for a bit (but most stores were closed), and settled down for a beer and dinner. Here’s the view form my room’s balcony, where I watched the sunset: