What is Fasil Ghebbi?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan

Fasil Ghebbi is a large fortress in Gondar, in Ethiopia. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 1979. It was the royal palace of the Emperors of Ethiopia through much of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Gondar is a large city in Ethiopia, which was the capital of the Empire for a time. Early on, the Ethiopian Emperors had no fixed city as their capital. Instead, they lived semi-nomadic lifestyles, traveling around their kingdom with their royal retinue, living in temporary tent villages. In the mid-16th century the Emperors began to settle in one region, around Lake Tana, for much of the year.

By the early-17th century, the Emperor Fasilides had chosen Gondar as the site for the new capital of his Empire. Why exactly Fasilides chose Gondar is uncertain, but there are a number of legends seeking to explain his choice. The most popular holds that an arch-angel appeared and prophesied the new capital would be built in a city whose name began with the letter G. Another legend states that when Fasilides was on a hunting expedition, a buffalo, guided by God, led Fasilides to the site of Gondar.

Fasil Ghebbi, within Gondar, is an enormous fortress. Fasil Ghebbi encloses many structures, including the Palace of Iyasu, Mentewab’s Castle, and Fasilides’ Castle. The site is imposing and awe-inspiring, and many have described it as the Camelot of Africa.

Fasilides’ Castle was built in the late 1640s, and it still stands in relatively pristine condition. It seems almost out of place to many who visit, appearing in many ways to be a European castle transported to Africa. The architecture is quite diverse, drawing on Islamic, Hindi, and Baroque stylings, and combining them in an aesthetically pleasing, and militarily deft manner.

Fasilides was known for his architecture, erecting no less than seven churches and seven important bridges during his time as Emperor. Fasil Ghebbi is definitely his most impressive achievement, however. It recalls a time of great Empire in the region, and can be a very eye-opening experience for Westerners unversed in the Imperial history of north-east Africa.

Iyasu’s Palace, also within Fasil Ghebbi, is an astounding achievement as well. In its time it was described as greater even than the House of Solomon. It was said to be lavishly decorated with all manner of finery. Gold-leaf adorned the ceilings, as did gemstones of the finest quality. Ivory and fine woodworking covered the inner walls, as did majestic paintings of flora. In the intervening years, however, all of this finery has vanished, moved elsewhere, looted, or destroyed by the ravages of time. Iyasu’s Palace, like much of Fasil Ghebbi, is now no more than a reflection of its former glory.

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