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Cross (Meskal) Shaped window of one of the 11 Rock Hewn Churches at Lalibela, Ethiopia
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
 
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NOVEMBER 26, 2007

The Royal Enclosure



Our final fling in Northern Ethiopia was Gondar - home of the Gondar Empire, Castles, and some of the most famous church paintings in all Ethiopia. Getting from Axum to Gondar, however is not as easy as one might expect - especially as we were travelling in the opposite direction to the traditional tourist trail around the Historical Circuit.

Feeling extremely run down, we decided to pass on the public buses and try and hitch a ride with a 4x4 - this however proved to be un-fortuitous as after half a day waiting around in the Africa Hotel's cafe we were still getting nowhere. With no choice but to return to the masses - we grabbed our packs, and with the help of some locals, within minutes found ourselves in front row seats on a bus heading to Shire - 60km's South of Axum and a step closer to Gondar.

Short bus rides in Ethiopia are actually quite enjoyable. From Axum to Shire (Indie Selassie) took only 2 hours, most of the road was ashfelt, although dirt was preferable thanks to the numerous potholes. At Shire we were dropped at the main bus terminal where we were pleased to find out there were onward buses leaving 6am the next day (As we expected). Checking into a budget dive next to the bus stop we consumed our Ethiopian fasting staple - spaghetti with tomato sauce and settled in for the evening.

6am bus rides start to take it out of you after a while. Waking at 5am, clearing your room. Walking through a strange town in the dark. Standing at a gate with hundreds of other hopeful passengers waiting for the gates to open, the mad rush as everyone pushes to get the prime seats. Haggling with the load boys about getting your packs up onto the roof. No breakfast, no water so you can make it through to lunch for a toilet break...

From Shire to Gondar is one of the most spectacular rides we have taken in all of Africa - no questions asked. You leave the plains of the north and as you head south you enter the ranges around the Simien Mountains. Without going on about the boring details - lets just say the old bus crawled along some single track dirt paths cut into the side of mountains with drop offs sheer for nearly 1km to the valley floor below. Having to reverse and edge around hairpin bends taking two or three attempts was hair raising - having 60 Ethiopians in a bus in high 30 degree temperatures - none of whom will permit a window to be opened even a single centimetre lest they die from fresh air was even worse????

When we pulled into town at 4pm in the afternoon we were beat. When we found out we were only halfway to Gondar we were crushed beyond belief. Thankfully the final stretch was downhill, pulling into Gondar after dark was with the knowledge that we had conquered the last of our mission trips in Ethiopia.

Like always - getting off the bus in Ethiopia requires a little bit of tact. Touts will jump onto the roof of the bus and pass your bag down expecting an extortionate amount of money for the privilege of doing so. In the past I have found 1-2 birr (20 cents) sufficient to keep them happy and hold off any arguments. In Gondar I was beyond fighting - when the bags were handed down We loaded up and walked off into the crowd. With some angry shouts coming from behind us we pushed on, thankfully several locals stepped in to disperse the troublemakers.

Not liking to waste money on taxi's or buses - and spending most of our time walking from one place to the next, we like to get hotels right in the centre of town - although off the main streets for noise reasons. In Gondar we checked into the Circle Hotel, a relic of the Italian occupation with massive rooms, big beds, hot water and worst of all - Satellite TV (the movie channel - it's Matt's addiction).

As good as our room was - we didn't travel halfway around the world to watch B Grade Movies (matt!). Gondar is blessed with the Royal Enclosure - with Sisay our guide we spent the next morning exploring the castle complex. Sisay was packed with useful knowledge on everything from Ethiopian History, architecture, religion, and political gossip, making Fasilida's palaces extremely pleasant.

Without boring you with details - the Royal Enclosure contains six castles linked by tunnels and stone walkways, several churches and numerous outbuildings including a lion enclosure built a few hundred years back to hold the native Absynian lion. The first Castle - Fasilida's Castle, was built sometime in the 1600's. Even though the city was sacked by the Mahdist's in the 1800's, the castles are all in excellent condition. Some of the roofs and walls were destroyed by the british bombers in the Italian occupation in the mid 1900's, yet overall the grandeur of the past can still be seen.

Unlike our guides in the past (Aside from Bruno on Kilimanjaro), Sisay was extremely patient with me as we walked around - letting me stop for numerous photographs, going back over old ground to see the castles from different angles, taking us into areas fenced off to quell my curious mind. At one point we left donna safely on the ground so that we walk up a closed off stone staircase winding up around a crumbling turret. At the top we were awarded superb views of Emperor Isayu's castle, the roof having collapsed in an earthquake some time ago.

Did I mention how much I love castles...

Originally we had just wanted Sisay to show us around the Royal Enclosure - but because he was such an interesting guy - and so relaxed as far as guides go, we asked him to show us around Gondar's other sites. From the centre of town we took a minibus out to Fasil's Pool.

Again UNESCO was hard at work, however thanks to Sisay we were given a totally different tour - this was restoration at it's finest. The Pools have slowly deteriorated over time, and UNESCO is working furiously to get them back into mint condition for the upcoming Epiphany celebrations which involve mass baptisms in the pool.

Ethiopia is not short of labour - and UNESCO was taking full advantage. All of the restorative techniques are as they were in the old days (when you had slave labour). From the moment you walk in the main gate you are greeted by a man hand chiseling red rock into shape to be used in the archways. The paths are being laid by hand using smaller hard rock brought in from the surrounding hills. While the heavy work is being done by men, most of the manual labour seemed to be being done by women. At one end of the spectrum you have 5 or 6 ladies sitting around crushing rocks with iron mallets. Other women collect the rocks and gravel and using large sifters sort the rocks into various grades. This gravel is then mixed with lime to be used as cement in the walls and pathways.

The lime is prepared old school style, huge holes are dug in the ground and then filled with lime and water. This is kept wet for 10 years or so for it to 'mature'. When it is ready to be used it is excavated by the women and placed in large 44 gallon drums, mixed with water into a sludgy paste before being added to the gravel as cement.

Alas I think i am rabbiting on about nothing.

After lunch we walked through the back streets of Gondar to the famous Debre Birhan Selassie Church. Depending on whom you speak to you will get a different story, however thanks to the timely intervention of some bees, this is the only church to have survived the Mahdist invasion (of about 50 church's in Gondar). Other versions of the events put it the church's impressive fortifications including a solid stone wall, 12 turrets and it's heavily fortified front gates (representing a lion). Either way the fact that is was saved is reward enough due to it's impressive paintings.

Entering the church you can only be astounded by the paintings covering nearly every workable surface. On the right side of the church (the women's entrance) Jesus' life is depicted in murals from birth, to crucifixion and ascension into heaven, the left wall (male entrance) contains scenes from St Mary's life, as well as the crusades. The roof is covered with angelic images, the alter wall covered with an artists impression of Jesus on the cross as well as numerous other icons.

Gondar was a refreshing end to a fantastic country. A day of rest before we push into The Sudan and the unknown.

Click here to see the Royal Enclosure Photo Gallery (21 photos)
Click here to see the Fasil's Pool Photo Gallery (21 photos)
Click here to see the Debre Birhan Selassie Photo Gallery (21 photos)

     
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