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Friday, December 23, 2016

11/15: The Royal Enclosure in Gonder, Ethiopia

After spending several days discovering the marvelous rock-hewn churches in Lalibela, we flew to Gonder, a city nestled in the foothills of Ethiopia's Simien Mountains at 7,200 feet above sea level, located near Ethiopia's western border with Sudan.

Steven waiting, ever so patiently, at our hotel in Lalibela, for our ride to the airport:
Driving through Lalibela turned out to be slow going because there was a funeral procession in the middle of the main street.

This was only the second time we had seen poinsettias growing wild. The other time was in Laos last year. It seems especially apropos now as I am writing this finally about five weeks later in the heart of the Christmas season.
Unfortunately, the van gave up the ghost in the middle of town. So, while waiting for a new vehicle to pick us up, we had time to notice these two guys pulling a goat by its two front legs. The poor goat was NOT happy being treated that way.

A couple more shots of the town's very rudimentary shops:

A view of the Simien Mountains from our plane:
Arriving in Gonder, we were surprised to see horse-drawn carts as there were none in either Addis Ababa or in Lalibela. We passed a large military base as Gonder is located pretty close both to Sudan to the west and Eritrea to the north.
We were immediately struck by how much bigger and more developed Gonder was. There were actually very modern buildings that were several stories high and also a paved line down the middle of the road into town for traffic control. That may not sound like much but having come from Lalibela where there was none of that, it was refreshing! We passed probably a hundred or more kids all dressed in bright pink shirts. It turned out to be their school uniform.
Next, we passed by an equal number of students attired in yellow shirts indicating the school they attended.
After checking into our really ugly hotel room, we escaped by walking into town. This was the city's main traffic circle:

The city's main imperial precinct, known in Amharic as Fasil Ghebbi or the Royal Enclosure, covered an area of 19 acres and contained five castles, raised walkways and connecting tunnels surrounded by high stone walls. The castles were built by successive Ethiopian emperors during the 17th and 18th centuries. The Fasil Ghebbi Palace and the many other buildings in the complex received UNESCO recognition in 1979, one year after Lalibela did for its unique churches. It is one of the most stunning places in Ethiopia and the reason why many people come to Gonder, other than the nearby Simien mountains. 
The per person entrance fee of 200 Birr  (~$9) was not unreasonable, but it only allowed us to wander around the complex. There was no map or signs anywhere and it wasn't clear what the money was used for since the place wasn't very well maintained. We decided almost immediately we needed a guide to show us around the many buildings. Kibru, the guide we were lucky to get, told us in absolutely perfect English that Ethiopia had been known as the Cradle of Civilization and that the country's history dates back to 3,000 years ago.
Gonder was the capital of Ethiopia from the rise of Fasilades in 1632 to the fall of Tewodros (1855-1868) which was reflected in the many castles and palaces in the city. Fasilades was responsible for restoring the Orthodox faith to Ethiopia and built 44 churches in Gonder, including seven churches on the castle grounds.
Kibru mentioned that there were 200 rooms in the castle: the main floor was used for storage and the kitchen while the second floor was used for reception rooms. The square tower, he said, was the king's bedroom and prayer room. The balconies around the castle were used for proclamations.
Kibruu said the large arch that connected the two posts was destroyed in 1941 by the British who bombed it when the Italians were in control of Ethiopia.
The Archives:
The Yohannes I Building:
Our guide said basalt stones and red volcanic 'tuff' were used to construct the castle with mortar added to hold it all together.

The first room we entered was a reception room which had ebony floors and ceiling.
There were different reliefs on the walls; some were Moorish designs.

There were also three Stars of David which reflected Ethiopia's Jewish past.

In the adjacent men's dining room, a fireplace connected it to the women's dining room on the other side.

Momentarily, I felt like a queen surveying her domain when I looked outside and saw some of the other buildings in the Royal Enclosure!

Kibru said that the round dorm tower in each of the castle's four corners made the entire building stronger.
Rain water collected from these gutters was put into the cistern seen in the second picture below.

Kibru told us that every time a new king came onto power, a new building was constructed in his honor. That reminded us of our recent visit to Egypt when new tombs were also built when a new king was born or came to power. This palace, located just a few feet away from the main one, was built for Iyasu, Menelik I's grandson. 
The upper floor was again reserved for he king's bedroom so he could survey his domain, Kibru stated. He added that both a family and a Christian name were given to royal children when they were baptized. Kings received a third name when they assumed power.
Iyasu, known as a warrior king, had a terrible skin problem. He asked a French doctor, living in Egypt, to come to his assistance. It was the doctor who wrote about his visit to Gonder and the history of the palace.

Kibru said Iyasu would walk across this bridge to the nearby St. Michael's Church to pray.
We walked over to the Archives next. Like most of the buildings in the Enclosure, it was a mere shell. However, it was still beautiful.
King Fasilades had a love affair with books and had this library built to house his personal collection.

Next up was Yohannes' Palace:
Right by Iyasu's Palace and the Archives was the king's lion cage. Lions in Ethiopia symbolized power and were a constant fixture in monuments around the country.

Our excellent guide, Kibru, stated that 75% of the country's population lives in just two regions of the country.
This was the Spinners' House as one of the queens used it to train local women 'Ethiopian qualities'.

A view of nearby St. Michael's Church that the kings used. Note the unusual design atop the roof - more on that soon!
Kibru showed us the Sauna next.
On the walls outside the sauna itself were cow horns used to hang up clothes. Kibru said though there used to be different horns in place that had come from the kings' hunting expeditions.

The sauna's windows were only opened recently.
The fire was made on the other side of the sauna and the heated stones  then placed here.

The U-shaped Bekaff's Castle was built in the early 18th century.

Interestingly, horses' stables were placed along one side of the castle.

The 158 foot long dining hall sat 300 people! The Italians put up the concrete ceiling and the terrazzo floors, Kibru said, when they were in power.
In Ethiopia, Kibru said it's customary to feed people with the right hand. Custom and good manners dictate that you can refuse the first bite. However, if you take the first bite, you must then take food the next two or three times it's offered! There are always three rounds of coffee served at home with the first one being especially strong.
Food preparation was done in this room:
When King Bekaff died in 1730, his very young son was made king. However, his widow became the Regent and lived in this castle. As it was falling apart, this was as close  as we got to it.
On the facade was a Gonderian Cross that we had just seen on top of St. Michael's Church. The cross constituted a circle with seven points around it; each point was represented ostrich eggs.
Views from Mentewab Palace of the Royal Enclosure:
Even though the buildings were in various states of disrepair and reconstruction, the Royal Enclosure still provided us with fascinating insights into one of Ethiopia's major tourist sites when King Fasilaldas built the first castle into the 12th century and successive rulers put their own stamps on the complex.

Before leaving the large Royal Enclosure, we talked to one of Kibru's fellow guides about a day trip in two days to the Simiem Mountains, the premiere tourist sight in Ethiopia. The $200 prices seemed rather steep so we later talked to a number of other small tour companies in Gonder. We felt very comfortable with the young owner of one of them, Simien Image Tours, who said she could arrange exactly what we wanted for a lot cheaper. Everything in Ethiopia was negotiable, even the food in the grocery stores!
Very near the Royal Enclosure was Abadeba Iyesus Church where almost immediately we encountered a self-described 'church employee.' 
He pointed out the Gonder Cross atop the roof; as at St. Michael's Church, the cross's seven points represented ostrich eggs.
Details of the decorative roof:

There were a number of buildings around the church.

The 'employee' said that the 32 boys who lived on the church property were students and that we needed to buy small loaves of bread at a nearby bakery to give to the boys, ideally one apiece as other tourists had previously done. We said 'No, we wouldn't be buying that many.' 
He followed us to the bakery which was several hundred feet away, saw us buy a dozen and promptly vanished. Steven had been far more skeptical than I about the 'employee' from the get go and thought the whole thing was a scam between him and the bakery.
None of us feel good about being taken advantage of and I was certainly left with a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach at what was likely a scam. Steven understandably wanted no part at that point in giving the bread to the boys but I felt it was too late to turn back. In hindsight, visiting the church was one of the most distasteful experiences I can ever remember.
A final view of the Palace:
As we walked around Gonder, we noticed churches everywhere we looked.

We also saw barber shops everywhere!
One of the churches we made a point of looking at was Elfin Giyorgis that was part of the Royal Enclosure though located outside its walls. It was one of the 44 churches built by King Fasilades.
Outside the church itself was this shrine where locals often pray.

We next walked to St. Michael's Church whose roof we had seen from the Royal Enclosure.
It was heartwarming seeing locals participate in church renovations.
Sign outside the church listing what to see in Gonder:
We were glad that we had two more days to visit other sights in Gonder and also the nearby Simien Mountains National Park as touring the Royal Enclosure had just whetted our appetite.

Posted on December 23rd from Littleton, Colorado.

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