Gondar, founded by Emperor Fasilidas around 1635, is famous for its many medieval castles and the design and decoration of its churches – in particular, Debra Berhan Selassie which represents a masterpiece of the Gondarian school of art.
Flanked by twin mountain streams at an altitude of more than 2,300 meters Gondar commands spectacular views over farmlands to the gleaming waters of Lake Tana thirty-five kilometers to the south. The city retains an atmosphere of antique charm mingled with an aura of mystery and violence. An extensive compound, near its center, contains the hulking ruins of a group of imposing castles like some African Camelot. The battlements and towers evoke images of chivalrous knights on horseback and of ceremonies laden with pageantry and honor. Other, darker, reverberations recall chilling echoes of Machiavellian plots and intrigues, tortures, and poisonings.
The main castle was built in the late 1630s and early 1640s on the orders of Fasilidas. The Emperor, who was greatly interested in architecture – St Marys in Axum was another of his works – was also responsible for seven churches, a number of bridges, and a three-story stone pavilion next to a large, sunken bathing place, rectangular in shape, which is still filled during the Timkat season with water from the nearby Qaha river.
While it remained the capital of Ethiopia until 1855, the city was a vigorous and vital center of religious learning and art. Painting and music, dance, and poetry, together with skilled instruction in these and many other disciplines, thrived for more than two hundred years. At the end of the eighteenth century, a poet declaimed.