They call Gondar the Camelot of Africa.
But Camelot, capital of the Arthurian realm, home of King Arthur, is fictitious.
Gondar is real.
In case there is any lingering confusion, I’m talking about the city of Gondar in Ethiopia; not the realm of Gondor in Middle-earth (for all those The Lord of the Rings fans).
Gondor is not real.
The castles of Gondar
Prior to the 17th Century the royal family of Ethiopia had always lived nomadically; they slept in tents, relied upon no permanent structures, and ate from the stores of the peasants.
In 1636 Emperor Fasiladas decided he’d had enough of the old ways. There’d be no more roughing it.
He had a vision. Of a royal family housed in regal settings. And of a grand Ethiopian capital.
Fasiladas’ Palace, the first residence built in the Fasil Ghebbi (Royal Enclosure) complex in Gondar, drew its inspiration from the castles of medieval Europe. Its design included turrets, crenelated parapets, and, being four storeys and 32 metres in height, it was the tallest structure in the nation.
Each successive monarch made their own additions to the Royal Enclosure. Swimming pools were added, as was a Turkish Bath, and a banquet hall, and a library, and a chancellery, and lion cages (housing Abyssinian Lions – the last of these died in 1992).
Palace of Iyasu I
Iyasu I, grandson of Fasiladas, and known as Iyasu the Great, built his own magnificent palace at Gondar. He filled his palace with many opulent trappings, including gilded furniture and mirrors from Venice, and sculptures made of ivory. The interior walls and ceilings he covered in gold leaf and jewels, with wealth generated from the export of gold, ivory, and frankincense.
Unfortunately none of this opulence can be seen today, as the palace was devastated by the great earthquake of 1704.
Gondar remained the capital of Ethiopia for over two hundred years. But when Emperor Tewodros II shifted the capital to Magadala in 1855, Gondor’s importance, and prosperity, inevitably diminished. In the subsequent decades Gondar, and the Fasil Ghebbi complex, were attacked, looted, and torched on at least four occasions by Sudanese raiders.
During World War II the Royal Enclosure was occupied by Mussollini’s Italian forces. Gondar was the site of their last stand; the Royal Enclosure a target for British air raids. Buildings were gutted, ceilings imploded, walls ripped apart.
The Royal Enclosure is still there. Its lions are gone. The emperors are gone. But its dreamy, romantic, fairytale-esque castles are still standing, still there for all to admire.
Which is more than can be said of Camelot.
Read more on Gondar and Fasil Ghebbi in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.