Inside the Kingdom of Ethiopia: Touring Gondar Castle and Fasil Ghebbi

Home to dozens of structures and the once-was center of the Kingdom of Ethiopia, this compound is an incredible historic find.Read More

Fasil Ghebbi once loomed large in Ethiopia. (Source: iStock / IulianUrsachi)

Few Westerners know the history of Africa, and many would be surprised to learn that Ethiopia boasts castles similar to those celebrated in Europe. Case in point: Gondar Castle in northeastern Ethiopia, part of the bigger imperial city of Fasil Ghebbi. Built in the 17th century, the castle once housed revered Emperor Fasilides and served as the center for a fortress city of palaces, churches, and various public and private buildings. If you have an opportunity – amidst explorations of Addis Ababa – take a tour of this historic landmark in Gondar.

A brief history of Fasil Ghebbi

Fun fact: Ethiopian emperors before the 16th century were unusually nomadic, living in opulent tents and feasting on the produce of nearby servants. Emperor Fasilides upended this long-held tradition, however, when he made Gondar the capital of his kingdom. Construction of Fasil Ghebbi soon followed, including the grand Gondar Castle and several important imperial buildings necessary for maintenance of the kingdom. This imperial city functioned as the epicenter of the Ethiopian government until 1864, when ongoing rebellions and political upheaval ultimately drained imperial power. Later restorations by missionary Jesuits brought a distinctly Baroque style to the city’s structures. It was this unique, many-layered history that earned Fasil Ghebbi UNESCO World Heritage Site status, declared in 1979.

Layout and makeup of Gondar Castle and Fasil Ghebbi

The imperial city of Fasil Ghebbi is surrounded by a 3,000-foot-long wall, enclosing more than a dozen buildings, including the kingdom’s treasury building, three churches, stables, a banquet hall, Gondar Castle, a separate castle for the empress, and other gathering spaces spread over 750,000 square-feet.

Twelve gates encircle the Fasil Ghebbi compound, each one originally designed to serve a specific purpose or group of people. For example, the Gate of the Queen’s Attendants was explicitly for those serving the empress, while the Gate of Funeral Commemoration was for those honoring the dead via special processions and ceremonies.

Inside Gondar Castle (Source: iStock / IulianUrsachi)
Inside Gondar Castle (Source: iStock / IulianUrsachi)

Following Emperor Fasilides’s death, succeeding emperors added to the compound with bathing pavilions, battlements, castles, and gathering spaces. Additionally, churches and religious structures in the compound grew to support multiple religious traditions, including Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

After the decline of Gondar in the 19th century, conservation efforts attempted to preserve the centuries-old compound, but did so poorly; cement and reinforced concrete were used to bolster the structures, damaging original materials. Fortunately, efforts begun in 1990 have worked to replace these materials with original lime mortar.

Conservation efforts are underway to preserve the ancient buildings of Fasil Ghebbi. (Source: iStock / Goddard_Photography)
Conservation efforts are underway to preserve the ancient buildings of Fasil Ghebbi. (Source: iStock / Goddard_Photography)

Touring Fasil Ghebbi

Several walking tours are available to help tourists make the most of their time in Gondar. While you can opt for multi-day tours of northern Ethiopia, we firmly believe this does not give you adequate time to appreciate the many facets of Fasil Ghebbi. Instead, go for a single-day walking tour of Gondar wherein much of your day will be spent on the many features of fortress compound. Tour prices vary but generally range from about $200-500.

Oh, and if you want a sneak peek of the compound – or simply enjoy 3D renderings – take a look at this Fasil Ghebbi recreation by the Zamani Project.