The ride to Gondar was only about 2.5 hours from Bahir Dar by car, which was a nice change from the previous day’s long bus ride.
Highlight: stopping at a market and watching Juliet expertly negotiate a good price for half a cow skin, including some scraps for me. Bahir Dar is known for animal skins and the Ethiopians do some really beautiful things with them (I regret not taking photos of some of the amazing furniture that we saw there).
Lowlight: enduring 45 minutes of bumpy winding roads after trying and failing to communicate to our driver that we wanted to make a bathroom stop.
The bumpy winding roads were well worth it when we saw the views from our hotel of the town and the Simien Mountains.
Gondar was the capital of Ethiopia from the mid-1600’s through the end of the eighteenth century, and its main attraction is a compound of castles from that time period known as Fasil Ghebbi (named for King Fasiledes, who initially established Gondar as the capital).
Outside one of the royal saunas, they used animal horns and tusks as towel hooks
King Fasil and the other monarchs who built castles in this complex were part of the Solomonic dynasty, and so two of their main symbols were the Star of David and the Lion of Judah. Stars of David were used to decorate many of the castles, and the photo below the Star of David shows cages where the Kings kept lions to represent the Lion of Judah. Lions — specifically, Barbary lions, a rare type of lion known for its large size and black mane — were kept by Ethiopian Kings and Emperors all the way until the end of Haile Selassie’s reign.
Near the castles is Fasiledes’ royal bath, which is basically a giant stone pool. Trees have spread their roots into the stones, which gives the bath kind of a magical, enchanted-forest feel.
As you can see, I got very excited about the trees: “They’ve grown all around the stones! It’s like they’re part of the stones! It’s amazing!”
The bath is still filled with water once a year, for the Orthodox holiday of Epiphany (a celebration of Christ’s baptism). It’s in early January so we weren’t there to see it, but this is what it looks like — our guide told us that children hang from the tree branches during the celebration so that they can be the first to drop into the water when it is opened to the public.
After seeing the castles and bath, we drove a little bit outside of town to the Falasha village. Falasha is the name of the Ethiopian Jewish community, almost all of the members of which have moved to Israel over the past few decades. Our guide told us that the village that we visited, while still known as the Falasha village, doesn’t actually have a single Jewish resident anymore (although apparently residents sometimes pretend to be Jewish for tourists).
The hut in the photos below was the synagogue. I’m not sure whether this was always all there was to it, or the Falasha took everything with them when they left, or there were items in there that just weren’t kept / maintained. The woman who “guided” us around the synagogue (which, since it is one tiny room, basically entailed opening the door and then asking for money) didn’t speak much English so unfortunately we couldn’t really ask questions.
See that thing hanging from the wall of the synagogue, towards the left of the last photo? At one point while we were standing inside, our “local guide” / door-opener took it off the wall, crouched down, and started beating it against the ground. She looked up at me expectantly and said: “The Jews do it. You are Jewish? You know it?” I looked confused. She beat it against the ground harder. It didn’t help. Does anyone know what she was talking about? Is it something that I should be ashamed not to know about my own religion, or is it an obscure Ethiopian-Jewish tradition, or did she make it up? Please comment!
This technically concludes the Ethiopian Edition of On the Road, since after Gondar we started flying places on the recommendation of our trusty guidebook, which informed us that continuing the rest of our journey by road would involve roughly eight full days of driving, due to bad roads and uncrossable mountains. Luckily, Ethiopian Airlines has very cheap internal flights and very comfortable planes. They are still working on timeliness and access to information, but more about that later 🙂