Although Ethiopia has been intact as a state since the dawn of history, it did not have a stable, centralized governmental capital until the 1500s. It was another century before the reigning monarchy, which could be traced back nearly three thousand years, had a permanent royal residence. Falidas Castle, built in in the 1630s, was the first of only a handful of official royal residences in Ethiopia’s history. Built on the fringe of three worlds, Falidas Castle borrowed architectural elements from Europe and the Middle East as well as Africa. Although today it is partially in ruins, Fasilidas is still the largest locally-built castle on the African continent outside of Egypt and the Maghreb, and is venerated as a symbol of the glory days of Gondar and the old imperial state.
The royal line of Ethiopia traces its roots to the Queen of Sheba, who had a son by King Solomon of the Israelites. From that time right down until the 20th century, Ethiopia was a geographic and cultural anomaly. Caught on the fringes of both the western and eastern worlds, the largely decentralized and nomadic Kingdom of Ethiopia managed to maintain its independence from the Egyptians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Ottomans. During the European land-grab of the 19th century, it was one of only two African states, along with Liberia, that maintained its independence. Only a brief occupation by the Italians in the 20th century interrupted their nearly three-thousand years of autonomy.
For most of its history, Ethiopia’s royal family led a largely nomadic existence. However, as Portuguese and Arab adventurers and merchants began arriving in East Africa in large numbers in the 1500s, the Ethiopians monarchs decided it would be prudent to begin consolidating their territory. In the late 16th century, permanent settlements began to spring up around Lake Tana. In the 1630s, Emperor Fasilidas established the country’s first true capital at Gondar and on the advice of a local holy man built a castle to serve as a permanent home to the monarchy.
Over the next century, Gondar grew substantially. Fasilidas Castle was expanded, and other palaces and royal buildings were built nearby. Many of these were later incorporated into a single Royal Enclosure. By the 18th century, Ethiopia’s capital city and state apparatus were on par with those of nearby Islamic states. As the power and wealth of Ethiopia grew in the 1700s, so too did the royal possessions in Gondar. Fasilidas Castle reached its peak during this period.
In 1855, Ethiopia’s capital was moved to Magadala, and Gondar fell into decline. Considerable portions of the city were forcibly depopulated. The process was accelerated in 1877 when the city was sacked during a war between Ethiopia and the Sudanese. Ironically, the city did not recover until the Italian occupation decades later. The castle, which had been damaged during the conflict with the Sudan, was preserved by the foresight of the Italian and later British occupiers. A substantial portion of Fasilidas Castle and the surrounding royal compound are now preserved and honored as the birthplace of the modern Ethiopian state.
The Royal Enclosure of Gondar is quite extensive. It dominates the center of the city, and yet the small but thick forest of trees that surrounds it makes the Royal Enclosure seem miles away from Gondar’s busy neighborhoods. As a fortification, Fasilidas Castle resembles a traditional concentric castle. Most of the site is literally enclosed by a high, thick wall. A second wall protects some of the Enclosure’s inner precincts. These two walls remain substantially intact. The Royal Enclosure houses a surprisingly large collection of intact 17th century buildings, so many in fact that the place seems like a town-within-a-town. Among them are several royal residences built by later emperors, including Mentewab’s Castle, Dawit’s Hall and Lyasu’s Palace.
There are also numerous other buildings including churches, governmental buildings, stables, and so on. The Fasilidas Bath, often associated with castle, is actually located outside of the Royal Enclosure in a different neighborhood of Gondar. The main building is Fasilidas Castle proper. Although clearly an African structure, the Islamic influence on its design is unmistakable. Its battlements feature high, rounded bricks rather than the squared-off sort favored by the Europeans. The four large towers are crowned with domes that would seem more at home on a mosque than on a castle. The site was substantially renovated in recent years, and portions of the interior can now be visited. The castle rooftop also offers views of distant Lake Tana.
Fasilidas Castle and the Royal Enclosure are located in the heart of Gondar, approximately 300 miles north of Addis Ababa. As of this writing, opening hours and admission prices were not available. Web: None Available.
Because Ethiopia’s government rarely moved after the establishment of Gondar, the number of official royal residences and sites are relatively few in number. The second royal palace in Magadala was destroyed by the British in 1868. The only other royal residence is the Grand Palace in Addis Ababa, which remained the home of the Ethiopian Emperors until the 1970s.