A journey through Ethiopia means traveling back in time. For example, the date of May 1st 2009 becomes actually August 23th, 2001 in the Ethiopian calendar, which has thirteen months. Twelve of them have 30 days each, the thirteenth month has five days (respectively six days on leap years which occur every four years without exception). There are several other facts that involve the calendar date calculation, which is much better explained in this Wikipedia entry.
Visiting the town of Gondar, which is probably best known for its numerous beautiful castles with architecture derived from Spanish and Portuguese, was like a surreal journey to the past. Often called as “the Camelot of Africa”, it has several sites that are laden with historical stone castles and palaces, dating back to the 17th century. By that time, the town had a population of 60’000 inhabitants and was the capital city of the Abyssinian empire. Although a lot of the treasures in this city have been looted over time, the most damage was caused by British bombs during the second world war.
The most impressive tourist attraction is the Royal Enclosure, which is an area of 70’000 square meters, containing castles and other ancient buildings. High stone walls protect this site from the bustling city traffic. Again, we did spend a lot of time fending off official and would-be guides, since we had a pretty good idea of the complex we wanted to visit. Eventually, we succeeded in being able to visit the Royal Enclosure independently on our own. These are quite impressive ruins, much to our relief, since we didn’t expect too much after our disappointment of the hyped monasteries back on Lake Tana.
Some of the buildings at this tourist site contain the name of Fasilada (or sometimes: Fasilides). He was an Ethiopian emperor in the 17th century who did end the period of commerce between his country and Europe. Which led to a government of complete isolation that lasted for two centuries. In the Royal Enclosure, there are Fasiladas’ Palace and Fasiladas’ archive. And a bit outside of the town center, there is Fasiladas’ Bath, where there is still a bit of renovation going on. The bath is actually filled once per year for celebrations, where a cheering crowd jumps into the water to replicate Christ’s baptism. The walls of around the pool feature impressive trees which did remind me and Evgeny of the temples at Angkor in Cambodia. Needless to say that we enjoyed strolling around that site and the nearby garden featuring Zobel’s mausoleum.
At the end of a very busy day, we did visit the Debre Berhan Selassie Church. It is said, that the walls and the ceiling of this rectangular shaped church hold the country’s most important artwork. Indeed, the compendium of saints, sins and other depictions on the walls are beautiful. They all date back to the 17th century, a time when this building was circular (as the churches and monasteries in other parts of the country).
Most of the pictures are quite terrifying, describing punishment of sins in detail. At the time we traveled through East Africa, Pope Benedict had his first papal visit to the continent, where he did reject condoms as the answer in the fight against HIV/Aids. I tried to imagine what kind of picture (and punishment) would describe the sin of using a condom. Who knows, maybe revisiting this church again in a couple of months from now will give me the answer.
Aside of this, a big stone wall containing 12 towers surrounds the Church. Each tower represents one of the apostles. The largest, 13th tower symbolizes Christ.
Gondar was the only place during our travel, where we met other backpackers in our hostel. Because our top-choice, the Fasil Hotel, wasn’t operating anymore – and the Yimam Hotel was full – we did end up in the touristy Belgez Pension. Besides being overpriced, it was a clean place. Annoyingly, it was also a perfect spot to get updates from obnoxious overseas people about all the current television series. We really did not want to mingle with them and these tourists kept staring at us like if we were wildlife on a Safari.
Once we did leave for dinner, we enjoyed the vibe in downtown Gondar which was much more interesting. And we were spared from having to deal with missionary people from “Gods own country”. Quickly, we made our way to a beautiful, small local restaurant. There, we did order our favorite staple, Injera bread, with Shiro – which is minced meat with a spicy and tasty sauce.
As usual, Evgeny ordered six beers for the start. He took up this habit, since service in Africa can be on the slow side sometimes. Six beers for three persons therefore avoids the unexpected wait between empty bottles. Which is sometimes a bit of a problem when ordering a second round of six beers, since the small tables would typically run out of space for so many bottles (and food). To be fair, we actually rarely had to wait for very long when being served in Ethiopia. Somehow, things run smoother and faster than further South on the continent.
We were very happy to leave the other tourists on the next morning and were bound for a very scenic drive from Gondar to our next stopover town, Aksum. The road passes next to the Simien mountains National Park, where the highest peaks reach 4200 meters. The views along this windy gravel road – particularly up to the town of Shire – are absolutely spectacular. Although we did not cover a lot of distance, the trip did take the better part of the day, because we stopped so many times to enjoy the breathtaking views from the tops of countless valleys that we did cross.
The pinnacles of the mountains did remind me of the Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, South America – although the peaks here in Ethiopia were much more spectacular and bigger. Unfortunately, being on a tight schedule, Evgeny and I decided not to hike in this park. We would have to spend at least three to four days here to absorb nature on one of the many trails. But the Simien mountains National Park has definitely become a hotspot on my list of places to visit (or re-visit) in my future trips.
As for the big Ethiopian star attraction, Aksum – and pictures from the mentioned road trip – stay tuned for my next blog entry…