My friend Abraha and I were at the entrance of the compound of the Gondar Fasiledes Castles, “Fasil Gimb” and waiting for our turn to pay for the entrance, a fee of 5 Birr for Ethiopians, and 50 for foreigners. I asked ‘why fifty Birr for foreigners, it looks a lot? How can we charge this amount for just a visit’? An elderly Ethiopian lady nearby (apparently from Gondar but with visitors, her relatives accompanying her) frowned at me. The ticket seller as well reprimanded me saying that it was ‘peanuts for tourists’ to pay such sum to visit such a glorious historical site. I did realize the sum requested for the sites to see was not at all exorbitant, but I also wanted to test the feelings of the people around there. One young gentleman argued with me in even more articulate and reasoned way. Later, I discovered that he was a ‘guide’ there. His name was Belay Gizaw. Belay was to walk with us all the way through the various edifices of the ‘Fasil Gimb’ as they call it, ‘Fasil’s Construction’.
What I was trying to suggest was, why charge so much when you do not give us anything in exchange. I argued that even tourists would complain about the fifty Birr, not because fifty Birr was a big sum of money by itself but considering the value of the money here, it would buy a number of things. You could have at least two rich meals or you could buy a number of souvenirs or use it for some other purpose. Now, I do not think that any tourist who goes to Gondar would regret paying 50 Birr to see the Castles. In fact, something like 6 dollars (exchange rate of the day) to visit the whole compound of the Fasiladas families’ treasures is a modest sum. If you go to St. Mark Square in Venice, Italy, and sit just in front of the Basilica to take a single cup of coffee, they charge you ten dollars! In this case, you normally have a guide who shows you all the way round, citing the historical records, quoting what people once said, explaining the reasons for the construction of each part of the building or hall. Hence, it was a kind of a lesson from a chapter of Ethiopia’s history in a few minutes!
Belay Gizaw in fact looked to us something like a computer, a walking history book which talked. He was helping a group which preceded us at the entrance by videotaping their visit while briefing us on what we saw. He showed us around. I complained that the money paid was big because ‘I did not have any clue as to whether there was a good guide like you to show us around and make us feel that King Fasil did what he did for various purposes.’ I reassured him that they needed to be better publicized, better managed because they were doing a wonderful job.
The first thing that I wanted to criticize was the way the entire compound or premises were held. It appeared to me (at that specific moment) ‘abandoned and left to its own devices’. When you walk into the compound first of all you cannot fail to notice the weeds, tall grass and pieces of stone and gravel here and there scattered. The impression you develop then is that ‘no one cared about the beauty or tidiness of the compound’ except for the castles themselves which also thanks to UNESCO’s recognition as one of the world historical heritages has been undergoing some important but basic repairs and maintenance works without altering the special features of the castles. Some cracking walls and bricks have been kept intact, doors and windows have been repaired or are still undergoing such repair, and it appeared that some due care was being accorded it. But I could not understand why little was done to tidy a bit the vast compound, the entire palace grounds.
But, Belay was not impressed by my observation and retorted by saying that the natural attraction of tourists focuses on only the castles and the rest was irrelevant. However, I felt I could not disregard such statement without strongly objecting. The palace grounds of a famous king did not need to be squalid, I thought. At least the ground could be levelled, the grass cut short, passages made that guide you to visit the palace showing by indicators, an eventual garden with beautiful flowers and the impression of a real royal palace would not encroach on the original beauty and fascination of the castles.
On the contrary, I would have thought that it would enhance its beauty, I told him. I have visited many old castles and palace grounds in Europe and there is no place where the compound is not meticulously taken care of. In fact, they begin to impress you from the very entrance and that is a plus to the visitor. You feel comfortable and warmly welcome. You would not mind paying whatever fee you may be charged!
What is more, they try to beautify the grounds even more, trying to attract more people making it a healthy and worthwhile place where to pass some time. Nearby, you could find a bar or restaurant where you could have a meal or refreshments, enjoying the beauty of the scenery. There are also children playground because it is an attraction for families. That’s why I was angry to see the glorious castles with little supporting attractions and facilities. The recently opened Andnet Park at the Menelik Palace grounds in Addis could be placed among those well presented sites ready for visit.
Tourists would be solicited to stay in Gondar and environs watching the castles, taking more pictures and films as souvenirs or just having a drink or two while admiring the way the castles were built and probably imagining those years when those constructions were carried out. They could take a glimpse of the past through this window in front of them.
A shop nearby would sell a lot of souvenirs pertaining to the castles and the history of those who built them. Besides, it is not only King Fasil who lived there. Other kings who succeeded him as well did. Few people are exposed to such information and only if we manage to present to them easily and handily would they in turn narrate the story to others showing the pictures and souvenirs. That is how tourism grows and that is how word of mouth travels far and wide. It is more immediate and convincing than any kind of publicity.
Touring the castles you come to breathe a bit of Ethiopian history of 350 or more years ago. You imagine how they figured out certain things and get clues about their mentality.
Historians agree that the Gondar Castles are among of the most symbolic historical sites of Ethiopia representing a certain glorious epoch. Ever since I was a kid, I remember the photos of the Fasil Castles. The Gondarine period is well depicted by such monumental edifice and I’m sure any Ethiopian would be gratified to go and visit it.
However, one can note that Gondar the city itself is bigger in name, in reputation than its actual state. As the former glorious capital of Ethiopia, you would expect it to be a huge metropolis full of excitements. Nothing of this sort seems to be experienced now. As it was the regional capital of the invading Italian fascists in the 1930’s, one can see touring Gondar that it has benefited from the construction of a number of typically Italian style edifices here and there.
The center of the town called ‘Piazza’, just as its counterpart here in Addis and probably in several other localities in Ethiopia is an Italian word meaning ‘square’. The major shops and hotels, including the municipal offices are sited there. You could see that like in any other Ethiopian town, the principal road is crowded; there are a few modern, new buildings along with horse drawn carts and minibuses pushing one another not excluding pedestrians. The main road is newly asphalted you can see that, and it goes up to Azezo, some 18 km. outside central Gondar.
A couple of km and you have the newly rebuilt Emperor Tewodros II Airport. Atse (king)Tewodros and Atse Fasil are arguably the two most representative and well known popular figures of Gondarine society. You come across a number of names of business ventures or trademarks over and above personal names given to individuals. If Atse Fasil is best remembered for his elaborate precious palace grounds, Atse Tewodros is best known for his vision of a grand united Ethiopia and his invincibility. What is more, his preference to self sacrifice rather than fall in the hands of the enemy has always fascinated and inspired generations. This particular historical event has remained in the psyche of generations of Ethiopians who to date believe that Tewodros has become a legend even if judged by that singular gesture.
Lots of literature and other artistic creations laud this noble gesture, the final sacrifice of a king in battle. Incidentally, history tells us that his successor Atse Yohannes IV as well was sacrificed for his country fighting alien invaders at Metema on the border with Sudan.
Back in the city, you could visit the churches of Debre Berhan Selassie originally from Debre Berhan City, North Shoa, the Kusquam Church where you find the fossils of Queen Mintiwab, and the Baptism area of Timket (Epiphany), the pool where the famous celebrations take place every year, built by King Fasil.
Gondar however seems to be tied up only to its once glorious past. Today, Gondar seems to have only the fame and reputation of having been the capital of a once powerful and rich Ethiopia and the birthplace of many kings and queens.
Today there are little signs of Gondar being a rich town and people’s only dream seems dominated by the desire to go and join their relatives, scattered all over the world: in Addis, in Israel (thousands have migrated from around Gondar on the claim of being ‘Ethiopian Jews’ or Falashas as they are commonly called!) or in North America, particularly Canada. I was told by locals that there exists a substantial number of Gondarine community, mostly exiled, fleeing the atrocities of a certain ruthless regional boss called Major Melaku Tefera who lived during the Derg military dictatorship, 1974-1991.
Present day Gondar is locally more reputed for being the birth place of many traditional singers (once labeled ‘azmari’ which was once not considered very decorous), but now are the most coveted ones for their original style! The string instrument, “masinko”, (local guitar) is very popular there. Gondar has produced among the most renowned and acclaimed musical icons in Ethiopia. In fact, there used to be a saying that it is difficult to find a Gondar-born kid who is not familiar with how to play a “masinko” or how to sing.
Be that as it may, what you observe when you have the occasion to visit such a historical place is that we need to do a lot to better exploit such treasure. The best hotel is reputed to be Goha, a branch of the Ghion. Its site is wonderful, on a hill top that oversees the town but itself needs a lot of repairs and modifications. Although the design and style are beautiful, it needs some more modernization, more maintenance as it shows all of its more than two decades of life. It needs to be furnished with better furniture, like chairs and beds and the bathrooms need to be furnished with hot running water available twenty four-hours a day. I was told that it maintained one huge boiler to serve all the clients of the hotel and this cannot be adequate to the current standard
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As to the quality of the food, my suggestion is that they better specialize in something national rather than venture in European dishes which might take more knowhow and expertise not always at their easy disposal. I have heard many of the staff complaining about their economic plight saying that they were serving the hotel for the last several years with hardly any increments in their incomes. This means there is a risk of decline in the enthusiasm of the staff and provision of certain services.
When we went to visit the Kusquam Church, we found out that the road uphill was mediocre and it would put to risk one’s vehicle. Whoever is responsible for the roads of the town should have thought proper to arrange a better access to these treasures. There is a need for the collaboration of the City’s Roads Authority as well as the City or Regional Tourism Bureau to come over such minor inconvenience but potentially disturbing for a visitor. Add to that the maintenance of all these historical sites and their making them as attractive as possible for tourists over and above their natural historical value.
I have observed the church representatives that we met upon our visit complaining about the management of the church and or the relevant tourism and culture office. I think these are very important responsibilities of the various concerned officials to put high on their agenda and find a durable solution as soon as possible.
But on the whole, Gondar remains one of the preferred destinations of tourists for a variety of reasons. Its rich cultural heritages and its warmly hospitable citizens besides the quality of the local food and the weather can be cited as pluses. The nightlife of Gondar’s ‘azmari houses’ (live traditional musical pubs) is also fascinating to see. In the post COVID world, Gondar could place itself among the top destinations and many international tour and travel agencies have witnessed to this point.