Fasil Ghebbi: The Magnificent 17th-century Camelot of Ethiopia
Fasil Ghebbi is a fortress located in the city of Gondar, in the north-western Ethiopian region of Amhara. The fortress was founded in the 17th century and served as the royal residence of the Ethiopian rulers up until the 19th century. It is also referred to as the “Camelot of Ethiopia.” Although the fortress was established by Emperor Fasilides his successors also added their own structures to the royal complex. Fasil Ghebbi is surrounded by a circuit of walls, within which are various buildings, such as palaces, churches, and monasteries. The city of Gondar declined during the 19th century. Consequently, Fasil Ghebbi also fell into ruins. Nevertheless, many of the complex’s structures have survived, and the fortress is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Ethiopian Emperor Fasil, who built the Fasil Ghebbi palace, on horseback in the 17th century. (allaboutETHIO)
Fasil Ghebbi: Palace Compound Built by an Ethiopian Emperor
The name Fasil Ghebbi may be roughly translated from Amharic to mean the “Compound / Enclosure of Fasil.” Fasil, known also as Fasilides, was an Ethiopian emperor who lived during the 17th century. Fasilides was a member of the Solomonic dynasty, which claimed direct descent from the Biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. This dynasty ruled over the Ethiopian Empire almost continuously from the 13th to the 20th century.
Fasilides ascended the Ethiopian throne in 1632 following the abdication of his father and predecessor, Susenyos. In addition to establishing Fasil Ghebbi, Fasilides is also remembered for initiating a closed-door policy, which shut his empire off from the rest of the world for more than two centuries. During the reign of Susenyos, Catholic missionaries were allowed to operate in Ethiopia. Consequently, the influence of the Roman Catholic Church and the Spanish was on the rise in the empire of Ethiopia.
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When Fasilides came to power, however, the Jesuits were expelled from Ethiopia. In addition, Fasilides sought the aid of the Muslim rulers from the coastal states to prevent all Europeans from entering his empire. Furthermore, the new emperor strengthened ties between the monarchy and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which would have undoubtedly been weakened when the Catholic missionaries were active in Ethiopia.
In addition to expelling the missionaries, Fasilides reinstated the official status of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and restored ties with the Patriarch of Alexandria. Moreover, Fasilides built many churches for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. These include some of the earliest of the 44 churches in Gondar, as well as the Cathedral Church of St Mary of Zion at Axum. The latter is known today as the Old Cathedral, as a newer one was later built next to it by Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia.
Panorama view of Gondar city and the location of Fasil Ghebbi, known as the Camelot of Africa. (ArtushFoto / Adobe Stock)
Fasil Ghebbi Begins with The Founding Gondar as Capital City
As mentioned earlier, Fasilides established the Fasil Ghebbi palace fortress. Before the fortress could be built, however, Gondar, the city it is in, had to be founded. Gondar is located in the Amhara region, in the north western part of Ethiopia. The city is about 725 kilometres (450.5 miles) to the north of Addis Ababa, the current capital of Ethiopia, and is 2133 meters (6998 feet) above sea level.
Prior to Fasilides’ reign, Gondar was not the capital of Ethiopia. As a matter of fact, the empire did not even have a capital. This is due to the fact that the rulers of the Ethiopian Empire would traditionally travel around their territory. This means that wherever the emperor set up his royal camp that would be the capital. This also meant that there was no permanent capital, since it changed each time the emperor moved.
Fasilides himself carried on this tradition during the early years of his reign. Around 1636, however, the emperor broke with tradition, and decreed Gondar to be the capital of his empire. It is unclear, however, as to why Gondar was chosen by Fasilides as his capital.
According to one story, there was a prophecy stating that the Ethiopian capital would be established at a site whose name started with the letter G. Consequently, there was a proliferation in Ethiopia during the 16th and 17th centuries of places whose names began with G. Apart from Gondar, two other Ethiopian places starting with G are Guzara and Gorgora.
Another legend states that Gondar was chosen as the capital of the Ethiopian Empire through divine intervention. In this story, Fasilides was out hunting, and was following his prey, a buffalo, who led him to the site of his future capital. According to the story, God pointed out to Fasilides that the site of Gondar would serve as the capital of his empire. Consequently, Fasilides chose to settle down at the site of Gondar and began to build Fasil Ghebbi.
The oldest building at Fasil Ghebbi is the Enqualal Gemb, known also as Fasilides’ Palace. (vladislav333222 / Adobe Stock)
Fasil Ghebbi Is Enclosed In 900-meter Stone Wall Enclosure
The fortress is surrounded by a 900-meter (0.6-mile) stone wall punctuated by 12 entrances. Additionally, there are three bridges connecting the fortress to the surrounding area. Within this circuit of walls is an area of 7 hectares (17.5 acres), on which stand a variety of buildings.
The oldest of these buildings is thought to be the Enqualal Gemb, known also as Fasilides’ Palace, as it was built by Fasilides himself. The Enqualal Gemb is located just inside the entrance gate and rises to a height of 32 meters (105 feet). The palace has a crenulated parapet, and four towers topped with egg-shaped domes. Consequently, the Enqualal Gemb is known also as the Egg Castle. The castle said to be the work of an Indian architect. In addition to the Indian elements in the architecture, Portuguese, Moorish, and Aksumite influences have also been detected, making the Enqualal Gemb an eclectic piece of work.
The Enqualal Gemb has several floors. The ground floor, which is also the castle’s main floor, was used for formal receptions, as well as for dining. It has been pointed out that the wall reliefs include several Stars of David, which would have functioned as an emblem of the Solomonic dynasty. On the second floor is Fasilides’ prayer room. This room has windows in all four directions, from which the emperor was able to view all the important churches in Gondar. Fasilides’ bedroom is located on the second floor, above which is the watchtower. It is said that on a clear day, it is possible to see all the way to Lake Tana from the watchtower. The roof of the Enqualal Gemb was used for religious ceremonies. Moreover, it was from here that Fasilides would address his subjects.
The Enqualal Gemb has been described as “resembling a piece of medieval Europe transposed to Ethiopia,” which undoubtedly contributed to Gondar’s nickname as the “Camelot of Ethiopia.” Although Fasilides initiated the building of Fasil Ghebbi, his successors would subsequently add their own buildings to the complex. Fasilides son, Yohannes I, for instance, added a quadrangular library to Fasil Ghebbi. Interestingly, the library was plastered over during a non-historical renovation of the building. It is also claimed that all the plaster in Fasil Ghebbi was added by the Italians during their renovations.
The Palace of Iyasu built by Emperor Iyasu I, Fasilides’ grandson. (homocosmicos / Adobe Stock)
Fasildes’ Grandson, Emperor Iyasu I, Added More Buildings
Fasilides’ grandson, Iyasu I, who succeeded his father, Yohannes, also left his mark on Fasil Ghebbi. Iyasu is regarded as the greatest ruler of the Gondarian period. Nevertheless, after the death of his favourite wife, Iyasu suffered from depression, and neglected affairs of state. Subsequently, Iyasu was murdered by his son, Tekla Haimanot, who became the new emperor.
This was only the beginning of a period of chaos, as Tekla Haimanot himself was a victim of murder. Tekla Haimanot’s heir, a four-year old son, did not inherit the throne, as the late emperor’s uncle, Tewoflos, succeeded in seizing it for himself. Tewoflos would himself die under suspicious circumstances, allegedly as a result of being poisoned. Stability was restored eventually during the reign of Emperor Bakaffa. The period of turmoil, however, weakened the monarchy, and Bakaffa’s son, Iyasu II, is recorded as the last emperor of the Gondarian period to rule with full authority.
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Returning to Iyasu. He was the greatest ruler of the Gondarian period and was responsible for the building of a second magnificent palace, aptly known as the Palace of Iyasu. This palace is situated in the north-eastern area of the fortress and is famous for its saddle shape and unusual vaulted ceilings. Additionally, the palace was once decorated with gilded Venetian mirrors and chairs, gold leaf, ivory, and beautiful paintings. The Palace of Iyasu was such an impressive monument to behold that it was alleged to be “more beautiful than Solomon’s house.” Unfortunately for the palace, an earthquake in 1704, followed by British bombing in the 1940s, destroyed much of the building’s interior and roof.
Iyasu is also credited with the building of a Turkish bath, in the northern part of Fasil Ghebbi. The emperor built this structure at the advice of a French physician to treat his skin condition. The bath is located between the stables and Dawit’s Hall. The latter is known also as the House of Song, and was built by the Emperor Dawit, who reigned during the early 18th century. Both religious and secular ceremonies were held there, and lavish entertainments were hosted by the emperor.
Dawit also built the first of two “Lion Houses,” which was used to keep Abyssinian lions. The second Lion House, incidentally, was built by Haile Selassie.
Debre Berhan Selassie church, meaning “Light of the Trinity,” was also built by Emperor Iyasu I. (Oscar Espinosa / Adobe Stock)
Fasil Ghebbi Is Home to Three Church Monasteries
In addition to the above-mentioned secular monuments (which included as many as 20 palaces), several religious structures were also built within the walls of Fasil Ghebbi. There are three churches (combined with monasteries) located in the compound. These are the Debre Berhan Selassie, the Qusquam, and the Gorgora. These churches were all sumptuously decorated, an indication of the importance of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Arguably the most remarkable of these three churches in the Debre Berhan Selassie, meaning “Light of the Trinity,” which was built by Iyasu I. The church is situated in the north-western part of Fasil Ghebbi and is still in regular use today. The church is known for its beautiful interior murals.
On the north wall is a depiction of the trinity above the crucifixion, whilst on the south wall is a depiction of St Mary. The life of Christ is the subject of the east wall, whilst major saints are portrayed on the west wall. The most notable of these saints is St George, recognised by his red and gold garments, and his white horse.
Interestingly, it has been claimed that the Debre Berhan Selassie is the only church in Gondar that was not damaged by the Mahdist Dervishes of Sudan when the city was attacked by them in 1888. According to legend, as the soldiers approached the church, the were attacked by a swarm of bees, forcing them to withdraw, thus leaving the church unscathed.
Although not within Fasil Ghebbi itself, another church worth mentioning is the Atatami Mikael Church, which lies just outside the royal enclosure. The church was built by Emperor Dawit III and is off-limits to tourists. Nevertheless, there is a small museum next to the church. The museum houses a collection of illustrated manuscripts, as well as ancient artifacts. These artifacts provide visitors a glimpse into the lives of those who once lived at Fasil Ghebbi.
The ravages British WWII aerial bombings destroyed a great number of structures at Fasil Ghebbi as this photo shows. (ArtushFoto / Adobe Stock)
Decline, Italian Occupation and the Rise of Tourism
By the late 18th century, the city of Gondar was in decline. Nevertheless, it continued to serve as a commercial and transport center for north-western Ethiopia. As for Fasil Ghebbi, the compound retained its role as the seat of the Ethiopian government until 1864.
In 1935, the Ethiopian Empire was invaded by Italy. This resulted in the occupation of Ethiopia by the Italians from 1936 to 1941. During this period, Fasil Ghebbi was used by the occupying force as their headquarters. In addition, some parts of the complex were developed for the use of officials. The Italian design of these buildings attest to the developments of this period. When Ethiopia was being liberated from the Italians during WWII, some of the structures in Fasil Ghebbi were bombarded and severely damaged by the British.
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Today, Fasil Ghebbi is a tourist site. The historical and cultural importance of the royal complex is reflected in its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which it attained in 1979. Indeed, even though many of the structures at Fasil Ghebbi have been reduced to ruins, they are still significant monuments, since they stand as a testament to the power of the Ethiopian emperors who once ruled their empire from Gondar.
Top image: Aerial view of Fasil Ghebbi castle or fortress in Gondar, Ethiopia. Source: ondrejprosicky / Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren
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