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History of the Fasil Ghebbi

The fortress was founded by a representative of the Solomonic Dynasty – Negus (Emperor) Fasilidas in 1636. Negus Fasilidas was an important figure in the history if his country, because he was the first emperor who founded the permanent Ethiopian capital. Until then, the Ethiopian rulers practiced wandering from one place to another, living a nomadic lifestyle in tents together with their subjects over many centuries. The city-fortress Gondar and Fasil Ghebbi situated within its territory was the Ethiopian capital to nearly 1855. In this period the castle complex has grown to enormous size, because after all, according to tradition, the Ethiopian monarch should not have been lived in a palace of his predecessor, but should build his own residence.

There are many legends about the creation of Fasil Ghebbi. One of them say an archangel prophesied that the Ethiopian capital would be enjoying its heyday at a place with a name that began with the letter "G".

Predecessors of Fasilidas tried to set up the capital in the cities of Guzara and Gorgora, but only in Gondar this prophecy was finally fulfilled. Another legend has it that the city was built in a place pointed out to the Emperor Fasilidas by a buffalo, who led him to the picturesque foothills during a hunt. This is the place where a small settlement called Gondar was located at an altitude of over 2000 metres above the sea level, surrounded by the two mountain streams near the beautiful Lake of Tana. Gondar was destined to become the historical and cultural centre of the country.

The construction of Fasil Ghebbi, which was enrapturing the travellers of this era with its verve and majestic appearance, began in 1636. The castle complex included not only the living quarters of the ruler but also the temples, libraries, gardens, banquet hall, a complex of swimming pools, stables and other buildings. Fasil Ghebbi was protected by a round stone wall fitted with 12 gated with towers above them. The main castle Fasil Ghebbi – the palace of Fasilidas, completed at the beginning of 1640s resembled European medieval castles thanks to its massive towers and cranellated walls. In addition, his palace had two floors, which was a novelty in traditional architecture of Ethiopia.

Each successive ruler of Ethiopia has brought something new into the appearance of the castle complex, erecting palaces and temples, many of which have survived to the present day. An exceptional activity was showed by the grandson of Fasilidas – the Emperor Iyasu I the Great, delighting by his wealth and piety. Unfortunately, his luxurious palace in now a ruin, but it is characterized by a number of chronicles as a more elegant and sophisticated than the Solomonic palace. The interiors of the palace were decorated with ivory sculptures, numerous mirrors and paintings; the ceiling of the imperial seat was covered with gold leaves and precious stones.

Unfortunately, Iyasu couldn’t enjoy his life to the fullest, as he went into depression, abandoned affairs of state when his beloved concubine died, and eventually was killed by his son, eager to sit on the throne. Several generations of Iyasu’s successors had met a tragic fate: one of them was poisoned or murdered, while another was forcibly deposed. On top of that the castle complex has been affected by a powerful earthquake in 1704. At last, during the reign of the Emperor Bakaffa in 1721, peace in Fasil Ghebbi was achieved again. The two new palaces were left behind by him – one belonged to him and the other to his wife, the Empress Mentewab.

Bakaffa’s successor, Iyasu II, was the last Emperor of the Solomonic dynasty. During his reign, there was built a whole range of new buildings outside the castle. After his death, Aksum Mikael-Suhut became deputy of the city of Gondar. He achieved a high position at the imperial court. He built a castle for himself, located not far from the palace complex. His residence has been not inferior to the apartments of his predecessors in terms of wealth. In 1770, Mikael-Suhut was expelled from Gondar, which remained the capital of Ethiopia until 1855. However, the former grandeur of Fasil Ghebbi wasn’t wasted. For a century, none of the rulers of that era left behind a more significant monument of architecture.

In the second half of the 19th century the castle complex was attacked and looted by the Sudanese participating in the Mehdist War. Many of the later historic buildings suffered during the Italian occupation. During World War II, the historic buildings were confronted to the British air raids and a long-term struggle for independence, conflicts with Somalia and Sudan in the post-war period didn’t allow for reconstruction of the castle complex. Fasil Ghebbi was listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979, but the restoration works started in full swing at the end of the 20th century. Works lasted over 10 years. Fasil Ghebbi was opened to the public in 2005 and is considered one of the most prominent attractions of Ethiopia.