Gondar is 50 kilometers north of Lake Tana, 700 kilometers north of Addis Ababa and nestles in the foothills of the Semien mountains at an altitude of 2200 meters above sea level. Gondar, founded by King Fasiledes in 1936, was the capital of Ethiopia for nearly 200 years. This fact is reflected by the number of palace buildings in the castle compound.
The city’s main imperial precinct, known as the Royal Enclosure, covers an area of 7.7 hectares and contains five castles raised walkways and connecting tunnels surrounded by high stone walls. The oldest of these is the Castle of Fasiledes, built of stone in the mid-17th century, reflecting a number of influences, mainly Axumite, Portuguese and Indian. The upper storey offers panoramic views and Lake Tana is visible on a clear day. The castle has been renovated recently. Fasiledes’ grandson. Iyasu the great, built his own castle and decorated it with ivory, gold and precious stones but an earthquake in the early 19th caused severe damage.
Journeying south and west out of the Simien from Sankaber, down a good gravel road to the town of Debark and then to the great and ancient city of Gondar. The town is flanked by twin mountain streams. Gondar commands spectacular views over farmlands to the gleaming waters of Lake Tana thirty-five kilometers to the south.
Gondar, beautiful from its beginnings, rose from the ashes of this smoldering backdrop of so recent and so traumatic a history. There can be little doubt that Fasilidas and his successors saw their elegant capital as a phoenix and so patronized the arts. They were doing nothing less than rebuilding their national heritage. In the process they built faithfully on the few solid foundations left from the past, rediscovered much that had been thought lost, and established a sense of purpose and a new direction for the future.
Sculpture, as one authority observes, makes little appeal to the Ethiopians, who have, however, a pronounced interest in pictorial art. This fascination with painting, mainly expressed through church murals, icons, illuminated manuscripts and scrolls, has been long sustained. It dates back to the beginnings of the Christian era at least; but the depredations of Gragn and other invaders mean that relatively little from earlier than the sixteenth century has been preserved.