Camelot, Ethiopian Style
Gonder, the so-called African Camelot, is where I got into my Ethiopian rhythm. I had enjoyed Aksum, but somehow it was Gonder that made me realize just how much I was going to like this fascinating – and occasionally infuriating! – country. This might have had something to do with the fact that I stayed at what turned out to be the most congenial hotel/guesthouse I encountered in all my Ethiopian travels, the Lodge du Chateau.
After my scruffy 100 birr-a-night room in Aksum (you get what you pay for!), walking into the Lodge’s little garden and being welcomed with a fresh mango juice was like walking into a little bit of heaven. Seyoum, the manager, immediately made be feel welcome and bid me to rest my feet in the thatch-covered terrace, with its commanding views of the town and surrounding hills. It was a place with character AND warmth, both, alas, lacking in most Ethiopian accommodations. And it being literally in the shadow of Gonder’s star attraction, the castle complex called the Royal Enclosure (hence “chateau”), I was right where I wanted to be.
By heading to Gonder* from Aksum, I was seriously messing up my chronological approach to Ethiopian history, as Gonder was not founded by Emperor Fasiladas until 1636 – well after the rise and fall of the Aksumite Empire and even many centuries after the building of the famous churches of Lalibela (the next stop in my historical circuit).
The dark structures of the Gonder period somehow struck me as more medieval European than medieval Ethiopian, particularly with their pronounced crenellations along the ramparts. However, the stories told by our guide (I shared one with two domestic tourists from Addis – one of whom was named Hallelujah!), were pure Ethiopian in their mix of history and myth. He regaled us with stories of extravagant Gonderine court antics, including the story told by a European traveler who reported that feasts included live cows being sliced up on the spot for that infamous Ethiopian delicacy: raw meat.
On the more decidedly historical side, I was intrigued to hear more about the so-called “Dervish” attack on Gonder in the 1880s, a fascinating Ethiopian chapter of the rise of the Mahdist state in Sudan when Sudanese forces tried to expand into the neighboring Ethiopian highlands. These forces waged great destruction, particularly on the city’s many churches – except on what was perhaps the most beautiful, Debre Berhan Selassie, which apparently (here comes the mythic again) was saved by a swarm of bees. The church’s amazing icons and other paintings thankfully were preserved, including its famous ceiling of angels looking down benevolently on worshippers below. Gonder’s castles also seemed to survive the Mahdist invasion relatively unscathed (well, they are made of stone!).
Towards the end of my stay in Gonder, I took a bajaj (or tuk-tuk) a few kilometers out of town and then climbed a wooded hill to find the remnants of Empress Menteweb’s Kuskuam Complex. Although less well preserved than the Royal Enclosure, this royal retreat exudes a quiet melancholy that spoke to me. I wandered alone among the ruins now gradually returning to the forest, listening to the birds chatter in the trees and watching the sun set on the surrounding hills.
This was my kind of Camelot.
*Also spelled “Gondar”, but not “Gondor” – sorry Lord of the Rings fans!