The small city of Gondar, 2,300 meters high amid the beautiful Simien Mountains near the shining waters of Lake Tana, was once the artistic and cultural heart of Ethiopia.
According to Homer, this is where the Greek gods went to rest and reflect. Gondar now is a busy, dust-colored town of concrete buildings, tin roofs and potholed roads, where the only color is the bright Chinese plastics and spices for sale in the local market. Tailors work foot-powered Singer sewing machines, laughing market women display a few piles of fruit and tiny children furrow their brows at the sight of this odd white-skinned visitor.
It is a strong contrast to the romantic history. From the early 1600s onwards, the Ethiopian Emperor Fassilidas and his sons built their capital here, with 12 imperial castles, one for each of the 12 Apostles, a library, sauna baths and, of course, a church.
Glowing red in the evening light, the four-story main castle looks like an illustration from a book of fairytales, its soft, rounded battlements conjuring up images of knights, damsels in distress and fire-breathing dragons.
The reality was almost as fabulous. The castle was described as finer than the House of Solomon, decorated in ivory, mirrors and frescoes, with its ceiling covered in gold leaf and precious stones. For 200 years, Gondar was a site of religious learning, music, dance, poetry and art. The names hint at what was: the Temple of Love, the House of Songs, and the Paradise Gardens. A poet wrote: Gondar, seat of prosperity and of savoury food! / Gondar, which emulated the City of David! / She will be a myth unto eternity!
In 1885, a Muslim army sacked the city, destroying 40 of the 44 ancient churches and countless priceless objects. Happily, however, yet another wonder survived destruction in this country of surprises, protected from the invaders by the Archangel Michael, flaming sword in hand, and a miraculous swarm of bees. The Church of Debra Berhan Selassie, the Light of the Trinity, lies a few kilometers from the town center, surrounded by high walls with, once again, 12 towers. It is a plain, thatched, rectangle but, inside, the walls are a kaleidoscope of Ethiopian church art, including a magnificent red and gold painting of St George, the country’s patron saint, prancing on a white horse and slaying his dragon.
But the greatest sight is the ceiling, where some hundreds of wide-eyed angel faces, all different, smile down from on high with wide Byzantine eyes and African features. While the soaring arches and bright stained glass of the cathedrals of Europe intimidate with the power of their architects and patrons, this simple roof brings a smile to the lips and a sense that heaven might actually be a place of fun, rather than dull and serious piety.
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