MEDIEVAL CASTLES IN AFRICA
By Janice L. Dennie
Welcome to my Castles in Africa Tour. I’ve always been fascinated with ruins representative of ancient civilizations, but I never expected to find castles in Africa. I am the author of a series of romance novels based on Ethiopian history. I enjoy writing about this fascinating country known by some as The Land of Enchantment. I especially love the medieval castles in Gondar and the city of Axum, where the Queen of Sheba once reigned.
The Medieval City of Gondar, Ethiopia
Gondar, Ethiopia sits high and proud 7,500 feet above sea level with mountains rising on every side and Lake Tana gleaming in the distance. The site of the city was well chosen for defense because it spreads over the top of a ridge making access to it difficult from any direction.
For 200 years during Ethiopia’s middle ages in the 17th and 18th Centuries, the kings of Gondar ruled much of Northern Ethiopia. In 1632 King Fasilides selected Gondar as his capital, and it soon became the political and cultural center of the country. Although the civilization of Axum was one of the main strings of Ethiopian culture, the achievements’ of the Middle Ages, centered in Gondar, have had a great influence on the nation.
After the decline of the Zagwe Dynasty at Lalibela, Ethiopia was ruled by kings who moved the court with them from place to place in Northern Ethiopia. Moslem armies sought to penetrate the highlands and under Ahamed Gran in the 16th Century, burned Axum and defeated the Ethiopian armies. By this time the Portuguese had established contact with the Kingdom of Prestor John and sent Christopher da Gama, a son of Vasco, to help Ethiopia fight the Moslem armies. After the death of Ahamed Gran, Portuguese missionaries sought to convert the Ethiopians to Roman Catholicism but failed. By the 17th Century the period of long religious conflict with the Moslems and Portuguese was passing and a new epoch was ready to be added to Ethiopian history.
King Fasilides and his dynasty built some of the most remarkable buildings in Africa, and Gondar became an imperial walled city of towers and castles. Although influenced by Portuguese design, the castles emerge as thoroughly and uniquely Ethiopian.
The largest castle is four stories high and was built of rough cut stones and lime mortar with cedar doors, beams and furniture. It is a large rectangular building with a grand outside staircase, a watchtower and four semi-detached rough turrets at the corners. Around the great castle of King Fasilides is a stately group of castles with their turrets, narrow windows, dungeons, and staircases all surrounded by a battlement wall with twelve Gates. Once centers of authority and government, these feudal fortresses seem lonely and deserted now, perhaps remembering when the Temple of Love, the House of Songs, and the Paradise Gardens Pulsated with life.
During the years when Gondar was capital of Ethiopia, a number of visitors from Europe and other continents reached Gondar and returned home to tell with amazement what they had seen. At the end of the 17th Century a French diplomat described the great palaces of Gondar with rich decorations, beautiful carved furniture and the emperor’s gold throne. More than 50 years later the Scotchman James Bruce came to Gondar where he lived several years. He visited the source of the Blue Nile which he claimed to have discovered, and his books about Ethiopia received wide circulation in the English-speaking world.
Eastern view of King Fasilides’ Castle
Kusquam Castle Gondar, Ethiopia
Scattered in and around Gondar is a wealth of other castles, churches and historical buildings. Perhaps the most charming of these is the bath house that King Fasilides built near a river below the city. Here amidst eucalyptus and cedar trees the old trianon palace sits surrounded by a large pool. Nearby is a small mausoleum said to have been built for the king’s favorite horse. Overlooking the city to the west is Kusquam Castle built by Empress Mentaub. Several rivers around Gondar are still crossed on bridges built during the city’s Golden Age.
The ancient City of Axum, Ethiopia
The city of Axum became the royal capital where the wealth of the empire was used to build one of the greatest ancient cities in Africa. Merchants, ambassadors, travelers and people came and went marveling at the city with its five-story palaces, intricate water system, gold and silver coins and its mysterious and marvelous obelisks.
The glory of ancient Axum were these great monolithic stelae carved from single pieces of granite. The tallest was one hundred twenty feet, the greatest obelisk ever made and taller than any erected in Egypt. The pre-Christian centers of worship seem to represent a giant sun dial where sacrifices were made to the moon. The semicircular tops of these ancient skyscrapers may represent the moon.
The original culture and language of the Kingdom of Axum was based on Sheba.
The majestic Blue Nile Falls-Lake Tana Ethiopia
The Blue Nile falls into a canyon to form one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Africa,–150 feet high and about a half mile wide, these millions of gallons of water cascade downward creating a cloud of mist which is called Tisisat—“Smoke from Fire”. Twenty-one miles below Gondar is Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, which Emperor Theodore called “my mirror”. This large heart-shaped body of water mirrors the majestic mountains around it, but quite often is a turbulent sea, as thunder storms flash over it.
It is from Lake Tana that the Blue Nile flows to Sudan where it joins the White Nile to push its way through Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea. Lake Tana is the highest of Africa’s lakes and covers over 1,000 square miles.
Excerpted from “ETHIOPIA-LAND OF ENCHANTMENT”
by Harry R. Atkins, M.A., F.R.G.S. Reprinted by permission,
all rights reserved.