The World Heritage site is an outstanding testimony of the modern Ethiopian civilization on the northern plateau of Tana. The characteristics of the style of the Gondar period appeared at the beginning of the 17th century in the capital city and have subsequently marked Ethiopian architecture in a long-lasting manner.
Flanked by twin mountain streams at an altitude of more than 2,300 m, Gondar was founded by Emperor Fasilidas who, tiring of the pattern of migration that had characterized the lifestyle of so many of his forefathers, moved his capital here in 1636, a role that it filled until 1864. It is famous for its many medieval castles and the design and decoration of its churches. No one knows exactly why Fasilidas chose to establish his headquarters there. Some legends say an archangel prophesied that an Ethiopian capital would be built at a place with a name that began with the letter G. The legend led to a whole series of 16th- and 17th-century towns: Guzara, Gorgora, and finally Gondar. Another legend claims that the city was built in a place chosen by God, who pointed it out to Fasilidas who had followed a buffalo there when hunting.
The main castle, which stands today in a grassy compound surrounded by later fortresses, was built in the late 1630s and early 1640s on the orders of Fasilidas. With its huge towers and looming battlemented walls, it resembles a piece of medieval Europe transposed to Ethiopia. In addition to this castle, Fasiladas is said to have been responsible for the building of a number of other structures, perhaps the oldest of which is the Enqulal Gemb (Egg Castle), so named on account of its egg-shaped domed roof.
Beyond the confines of the city to the north-west by the Qaha River there is another fine building sometimes associated by Fasilidas, a bathing palace. The building is a two-storeyed battlemented structure situated within and on one side of a rectangular pool of water which was supplied by a canal from the nearby river. The bathing pavilion itself stands on pier arches, and contains several rooms reached by a stone bridge, part of which could be raised for defence. The Emperor, who was greatly interested in architecture was also responsible for seven churches and a number of bridges.
Iyasu the Great, a grandson of Fasilidas, was particularly active. His castle was described at the time as finer than the House of Solomon. Its inner walls were decorated with ivory, mirrors and paintings of palm trees and its ceiling was covered with gold-leaf and precious stones. Iyasu’s most lasting achievement was the Church of Debra Berhan Selassie (Light of the Trinity), which stands surrounded by a high wall on raised ground to the north-west of the city and continues in regular use. A plain, thatched, rectangular structure on the outside, the interior of Debra Berhan Selassie is marvellously painted with scenes from religious history. The north wall is dominated by a depiction of the Trinity above the Crucifixion; the theme of the south wall is St Mary and that of the east wall the life of Jesus. The west wall shows major saints, with St George in red and gold on a prancing white horse.
Not long after completing this remarkable and impressive work, Iyasu went into deep depression when his favourite concubine died. He abandoned affairs of state and his son, Tekla Haimanot, declared himself Emperor and killed his father. Tekla Haimanot was in his turn murdered; his successor was also forcibly deposed and the next monarch was poisoned. The brutalities came to an end with Emperor Bakaffa, who left two fine castles, one attributed directly to him and the other to his consort, the Empress Mentewab.
Bakaffa’s successor, Iyasu II, is regarded by most historians as the last of the Gondar Emperors to rule with full authority. During his reign, work began on a whole range of new buildings outside the main palace compound. The monarch also developed the hills north-west of the city centre known as Kweskwam (after the home of the Virgin Mary).