Gonder-The land of Kings & Queens!
It’s not what Gonder (ጎንደር) is, but what Gonder was that’s so enthralling. The city lies in a bowl of hills where tall trees shelter tin-roofed stone houses, but rising above these, and standing proud through the centuries, are the walls of castles bathed in blood and painted in the pomp of royalty. It's often called the 'Camelot of Africa', a description that does the royal city a disservice: Camelot is legend, whereas Gonder is reality.
Debre Berhan Selassie
Welcome to one of Ethiopia's most beautiful churches. Appealing as it is on the outside with its stone walls, arched doors and two-tiered thatch roof, it's the inner sanctuary of Debre Berhan Selassie, with its glorious frescos, that really shines. But it was very nearly destroyed like most of Gonder’s other churches. When the marauding Sudanese dervishes showed up outside the church gates in the 1880s, a giant swarm of bees surged out of the compound, chasing the invaders away.
The ceiling, with its rows and rows of winged cherubs representing the omnipresence of God, draws most eyes. There’s space for 135 cherubs, though 13 have been erased by water damage. Aside from the cherubs the highlights have to be the devilish Bosch-like depiction of hell. Although local tradition attributes most paintings to the 17th-century artist Haile Meskel, this is unlikely because the building only dates back to the late 18th century. The original circular church, created in the 1690s by Iyasu I, was destroyed by lightning.
A large stone wall with 12 rounded towers surrounds the compound and these represent the 12 apostles. The larger 13th tower (entrance gate) symbolises Christ and is shaped to resemble the Lion of Judah. If you have a keen eye, you’ll be able to spot the lion’s tail above the doorway in the wall west of the church.
Flash photography inside the church is forbidden. Priests offer tours, but a small contribution for the church should be left afterwards.
The Gonder of yesteryear was a city of extreme brutality and immense wealth. Today the wealth and brutality are gone, but the memories linger in this amazing World Heritage site. The entire 70,000-sq-metre compound containing numerous castles and palaces has been restored with the aid of Unesco. Knowledgable, well-trained guides cost Birr200 and are well worth it.
By far the most impressive, and also the oldest, building is Fasiladas’ Palace, just inside the entrance gate. It stands 32m tall and has a crenulated parapet and four domed towers. Made of roughly hewn stones, it’s reputedly the work of an Indian architect and shows an unusual synthesis of Indian, Portuguese, Moorish and Aksumite influences. The main floor was used as dining halls and a formal reception area. Note the wall reliefs, including several Stars of David, which trumpet Fasiladas’ link to the Solomonic dynasty. The small room in the northern corner boasts its original beam ceiling and some faint frescoes. On the 1st floor, Fasiladas’ prayer room has windows in four directions, each overlooking Gonder’s important churches. Religious ceremonies were held on the roof, and it was from here that he addressed his people. Above Fasiladas’ 2nd-floor bedroom was the watchtower, from where it’s (apparently) possible to see all the way to Lake Tana. Behind the castle are various ruined buildings, including the kitchen (domed ceiling), steam bath and water cistern.
Palace of Iyasu I
To the palace’s northeast is the saddle-shaped Palace of Iyasu I, with its unusual vaulted ceiling. The son of Yohannes I, Iyasu I (r 1682–1706) is considered the greatest ruler of the Gonderine period. The palace used to be sumptuously decorated with gilded Venetian mirrors and chairs, with gold leaf, ivory and beautiful paintings adorning the walls. Visiting travellers described the palace as ‘more beautiful than Solomon’s house’. Although a 1704 earthquake and British bombing in the 1940s have done away with the interior and most of the roof, its skeletal shell reeks of history.
Other Southern Buildings
North of Iyasu’s palace are the relics of its banquet hall and storage facilities. To the west is the quadrangular library of Fasiladas’ son, Yohannes I (r 1667–82), which was plastered over by the Italians in a nonhistoric renovation. (In fact, all plaster found in the Royal Enclosure compound was added by the Italians.) Once an impressive palace decorated with ivory, only the tower and walls of Fasiladas’ Archive remain. It sits northwest of the library.
The compound’s northern half holds vestiges of Dawit’s Hall, known as the House of Song, in which many religious and secular ceremonies and lavish entertainments took place. Emperor Dawit (r 1716–21) also built the first of two Lion Houses (the second was built by Haile Selassie) where Abyssinian lions were kept until 1990. When Dawit came to a sticky end (he was poisoned in 1721), Emperor Bakaffa (r 1721–30) took up the reins and built his palace with a huge banqueting hall (the current ceiling was added by the Italians) and the impressive stables. Between the stables and Dawit’s Hall is the Turkish bath (wesheba), built by Iyasu I at the advice of a French physician to deal with his skin conditions. It apparently also worked wonders for those suffering from syphilis! At the southern end you’ll see the fire pit and the ceiling’s steam vents. The Italians added windows and made it a kitchen.
Bakaffa’s consort was responsible for the last palace, Mentewab’s Castle, a two-storey structure that’s now the site’s office. Note the Gonderian cross being used as a decorative motif. Mentewab (r 1730–55) also built the women’s vocational school to the front, where classes included facial tattooing and chicken cutting.
Atatami Mikael Church
Atatami Mikael church, just outside the Royal Enclosure’s exit gate, was built by Emperor Dawit III. The church itself is off-limits, but the interesting little museum (Birr25) has lots of beautiful illustrated manuscripts and a few other items such as giant pots for making beer.
Empress Mentewab’s Kuskuam Complex
It mightn't be as well-preserved as the Royal Enclosure, or as sacred as Debre Berhan Selassie, but what this royal compound, known as Kuskuam, lacks in order and holiness it more than makes up for in melancholy. The complex was built in 1730 for the redoubtable Empress Mentewab, after the death of her husband (Emperor Bakaffa).
It’s said that Mentewab chose to move out here because she was a bit too keen on male companions and living out here would keep her out of gossip’s way. Gossip and the boys didn’t stay away though: according to locals, when James Bruce stayed here with the empress during his explorations of the highlands, he got to discover more than just the source of the Blue Nile.
Like the Royal Enclosure, the complex is made up of a series of buildings, including a long, castellated palace used for state receptions and to house the royal garrison. Its exterior is trimmed with red volcanic tuff – figures include St Samuel, a lion and the same Gonderian crosses as on her palace in the Royal Enclosure. Her palace and several nearby buildings were damaged by the British during WWII.
There used to be a fine church here, but that was destroyed by the Dervishes and the rebuilt sanctuary is uninspiring. The star attraction in the adjacent museum, under one of the egg-shaped towers, is a small glass-fronted coffin with the remains of the empress, her son Emperor Iyasu II and her grandson Iyo’as, the last emperor of Gonder. Below the complex lies a series of tiny doll-sized mud-and-stick houses that religious students live in while training to become monks or priests.
The complex lies in the hills 4km northwest of town. A bajajfrom the piazza, taking in the palace and Fasiladas’ Bath, should cost about Birr100 return.
Around 2km northwest of the piazza lies Fasiladas’ Bath, which has been attributed to both Fasiladas and Iyasu I. The large rectangular pool is overlooked by a charming building, thought by some to be a vacation home. It’s a beautiful and peaceful spot, where snakelike tree roots digest sections of the stone walls. Minibuses (Birr3) from near the piazza pass here. A contract bajaj is Birr20. You must obtain your ticket at the Royal Enclosure before visiting.
Although the complex was used for swimming (royalty used to don inflated goat-skin life jackets for their refreshing dips!), it was likely to have been constructed for religious celebrations, the likes of which still go on today. Once a year, it’s filled with water for the Timkat celebration. After the water is blessed by the bishop, the pool becomes a riot of splashing water, shouts and laughter as a crowd of hundreds jumps in. The ceremony replicates Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River and is seen as an important renewal of faith.
Just east of the main compound is Zobel’s Mausoleum. Local legend states it’s named after Yohannes I’s horse, which ran so fast that he was able to escape some bandits he encountered while out hunting buffalo. Another tale says that it heroically brought Iyasu (Yohannes’ son) back from Sudan after his father’s death. Not only was the horse a good walker, but it could, it is said, jump 25m in a single leap.
Though its early history is murky (it was likely built in the 17th century, though some say the 18th), this attractive palace once served as a retreat for Haile Selassie, a residence for Italian generals and a torture chamber for the Derg. It’s now under renovation (don't hold your breath) to serve as a museum of Gonder’s history that will include some of Haile Selassie’s furniture and objects found at the palace and Portugese Cathedral at Gorgora.
Originally the city’s weekly market, Kidame Gebya is now packed throughout the week, although Saturday remains the biggest day and Sunday is rather quiet. Traditional clothes vendors are right at the top, while the vegetable sellers use ancient-looking dirt perches in the back. It’s 500m southwest of the bus station.
YOGA IN ADDIS ABABA!
How yoga changes your body, starting the day you begin!
The Eastern practice of yoga has become a modern-day symbol of peace, serenity and well-being in the West. More than 20 million Americans practice yoga, according to the 2012 Yoga in America study, with practitioners spending more than $10 billion a year on yoga-related products and classes.
The mind-body practice is frequently touted for its ability to reduce stress and boost well-being, but it also offers wide-ranging physical health benefits that rival other forms of exercise. While the scientific research on yoga's health benefits is still young, here's what we know so far about its potential effects on the body.
Improved Brain Function.
Just 20 minutes of Hatha yoga -- an ancient form of the practice that emphasizes physical postures rather than flow or sequences -- can improve cognitive function, boosting focus and working memory. In a University of Illinois study, participants performed significantly better on tests of brain functioning after yoga, as compared to their performance after 20 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise.
Lower Stress Levels.
Yoga's stress-busting powers may come from its ability to lessen the activity of proteins that are known to play a role in inflammation, according to a study published last year from University of California, Los Angeles researchers.
Alter Gene Expression.
A small Norwegian study suggested that yoga's many healthy benefits might come from its ability to alter gene expression in immune cells.
A recent Colorado State University study found that Bikram yoga -- a form of yoga in which a series of 26 postures are performed for 90 minutes in a heated room -- is linked with increased shoulder, lower back and hamstring flexibility, as well as greater deadlift strength and decreased body fat, compared with a control group.
After A Few Months:
Lower Blood Pressure.
People with mild to moderate hypertension might benefit from a yoga practice, as a study from University of Pennsylvania researchers found that it could help to lower their blood pressure levels. Researchers found that people who practiced yoga had greater drops in blood pressure compared with those who participated in a walking/nutrition/weight counseling program.
Improved Lung Capacity.
A small 2000 Ball State University study found that practicing Hatha yoga for 15 weeks could significantly increase vital lung capacity, which is the maximum amount of air exhaled after taking a deep breath. Vital lung capacity is one of the components of lung capacity.
Reduced Chronic Neck Pain.
A German study published in The Journal of Pain showed that four weeks of practicing Iyengar yoga (a type of Hatha yoga that stresses proper alignment and the use of props) is effective in reducing pain intensity in adults suffering from chronic neck pain.
A 2010 Boston University study showed that 12 weeks of yoga could help to reduce anxiety and increase gamma-aminobutyric (GABA) levels in the brain (low levels of GABA have been linked with depression and anxiety disorders).
Relief from Chronic Back Pain.
Researchers at West Virginia University found Iyengar Yoga to be more effective in reducing pain and improving mood than standard medical treatment among those with chronic lower back problems.
Steady Blood Sugar Levels in People with Diabetes.
Adding yoga to a typical diabetes care regimen could result in steady blood sugar levels, according to a 2011 Diabetes Care study. Reuters reported that just three months of yoga in addition to diabetes care resulted in a decrease in body mass index, as well as no increases in blood sugar levels.
Improved Sense of Balance.
Practicing an Iyengar yoga program designed for older adults was found to improve balance and help prevent falls in women over 65, according to a 2008 Temple University study.
A 2009 pilot study by Dr. Loren Fishman showed that practicing yoga could improve bone density among older adults: "We did a bone mineral density (DEXA) scan, then we taught half of them the yoga, waited two years, and did another scan," Fishman previously told The Huffington Post. "And not only did these people not lose bone, they gained bone. The ones who didn't do the yoga lost a little bone, as you would expect."
Researchers from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle found an association between a regular yoga practice and decreased weight -- or at least a maintained weight -- among more than 15,000 healthy, middle-aged adults:
"Those practicing yoga who were overweight to start with lost about five pounds during the same time period those not practicing yoga gained 14 pounds," study researcher Alan Kristal, DPH, MPH, told WebMD.
Lower Risk Of Heart Disease.
As part of a healthy lifestyle, yoga may lower cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar, according to Harvard Health Publications.