Leaving the island monasteries of Lake Tana behind, we drove through the volcanic landscape towards Gonder, which was once the capital of Ethiopia. It was founded by the emperor Fasilides in the 17th century. Fasilides and several of his successors built elaborate palaces here, many of which still survive. These emperors are part of the Solomonic dynasty which goes back to Menelik I, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
This volcanic plug is known locally as God’s Thumb. We enjoyed a rare smooth drive on a paved highway, passing terraced fields of corn, wheat, sugar cane, and teff, the high protein grain from which Ethiopians make their enjera bread.
Gonder was traditionally divided into several different quarters where different religious and ethnic groups lived. Gonder and the surrounding countryside were the traditional home of the Ethiopian Jews, sometimes called Falasha. Very few are left in Ethiopia, since many thousands were airlifted to Israel in 1991’s Operation Solomon. Our first visit was to Debrebirhan Selassie Church. Here there is a famous ceiling covered with paintings in the Gonder style. Haile demonstrated the Sistrum, another of the traditional holy objects and musical instruments.
From the church we walked through a seminary where future monks and priests are trained. Although they are close to the big city they live in humble huts built of sticks plastered with mud, similar to the rural farmers’ dwellings.
At midday we stopped for lunch at the Four Sisters restaurant. One of the sisters used to work at our hotel, until a customer offered to finance her in her own restaurant. The food was excellent and we were happy to support this hard working family. For those of you who haven’t tried Ethiopian food, it’s one of my favorite cuisines. There are a variety of spicy stews made with chicken, beef, lamb, and vegetables, all soaked up by the fluffy enjera, which looks like a large pancake. We also had some great grilled fish, including something called Nile Perch.
After lunch we continued to the Royal Enclosure that includes the elaborate palaces of Emperors Fasilides, Iyasu, and others. The palace complex is one of Ethiopia’s nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
We also visited Fasilides’ Bath, which is the location for an annual festival still held here every year.