Gateway to the Fasil Royal Compound in Gondar
In 1622, the Emperor Susneyos was converted by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries to Roman Catholicism. This conversion flew in the face of hundreds of years of Ethiopian tradition and sparked a bloody civil war. In 1632, Susneyos wisely abdicated in favor of his son, Fasilidas. Four years later, Fasilidas kicked the Portuguese out of Ethiopia. In the same year, he had the Holy Ark of the Covenant returned to the city of Axum, and he also founded the city of Gondar in the Ethiopian highlands and made it his capital.
My wife Yaa and I visited the Fasil Royal Compound in Gondar, which contains the remains of five imperial palaces as well as the Royal Library, all built in the 17th and 18th centuries CE.
In 1677, Fasilidas was succeeded by his son, Yohannes I, who today is remembered for his wise and just rule. Yohannes fed the poor and the hungry, and passed laws forbidding cruelty to animals. He also refused to levy any taxes on the Ethiopian people, preferring to finance the government via his own personal funds.
That probably explains why his palace is so small, compared to that of either his dad, or his son Iyasu, who succeeded him in 1682.
Iyasu was a great military leader who conquered Eritrea and parts of modern-day Sudan. Under his rule, the Ethiopian empire reached heights not seen since the days of the Axumite kings. Iyasu was murdered by his son, and a period of chaos followed. The next ten years saw Ethiopia pass under the rule of five different emperors, the reign of each of which was ended by assassination. The years that followed are known to the Ethiopians as the “Time of Judges.” Ethiopia became what today we would call a failed state. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, there was still a nominal emperor in Gondar, but no one paid him much attention. Real authority rested with the local chiefs, the more prominent of whom began to conduct their own foreign policies. And as the power of the Emperor faded, so did Gondar’s fortunes.
The next day we hired a van and traveled to Wolleka, the so-called Falasha Village lying just five kilometers north of Gondar. The Falashas practiced an archaic form of Judaism which included blood sacrifices, which in the seventh century BCE had been banned everywhere except in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. They had the Torah, but not any more recent Jewish scriptures. All this indicates that Judaism had been brought to that part of the world some time in the distant past.
Historians have long assumed that Judaism came to Ethiopia by way of Saba, a nation located in the south Arabian peninsula, which for centuries was ruled by Jewish princes. But, as the author Graham Hancock points out, if that were the case, we would expect the epicenter of Ethiopian Jewry to be located on the Red Sea coast, and that decidedly is not the case. Rather, the epicenter is located around Gondar, near Lake Tana, just as we would expect if Jewish migrants had come to Ethiopia by way of the Blue Nile, and just as Hancock was told by the Falashas themselves.
At one time the Falashas had numbered in the hundreds of thousands, but centuries of civil wars and pogroms had cut their number down and down and down. By the 1980’s they had dwindled down to a few thousand. Most of these were airlifted out of Ethiopia to Israel during the civil war between Mengistu and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front.
One of the village elders in Wolleka kindly showed us the synagogue. He said they still held services here, although I didn’t see any evidence of that. Our guide told us that the village population numbered about four thousand, of which about four hundred still practiced the old religion.
I had a hard time believing that. It seemed unlikely the total village population numbered as many as four hundred, let alone four thousand.
We walked back to the road. I certainly couldn’t see anything about Wolleka that distinguished it from any other African village I’ve seen, save for the stars of David scrawled on the walls of the mud huts, and the swarms of children hawking porcelain replicas of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba together in the sack.
Afterwards we hiked up to the top of Paradise Mountain to take in the view of the city.
Gondar continued to decline in the mid-nineteenth century when Tewdoros, a Robin-Hood-like figure from the Bahar Dar area, seized the throne and moved the capital, first to Debra Tabor and later to Magdala.
The city later fell under the control of rebel forces and was twice attacked by Tewodoros’s army, first in 1864 and again in 1866. Government forces burned many buildings, including churches, and carried most of their treasures away to the new capital. Woman and priests were tossed into the flames. “This is a stiff-necked people,” Tewdoros noted, “And it is necessary to chastise them before they enjoy the blessings which Providence has intended for them.”
Tewdoros wanted to revitalize the Ethiopian nation-state. But his ambitions didn’t end there. He dreamed of ruling over a mighty empire stretching from the Horn of Africa to the Holy City of Jerusalem. Toward this end, he needed foreign trade and investment. Angry at being snubbed by the European powers, he expressed his displeasure by kidnapping the British Consul.
This strategy for winning friends and influencing people did not work out as well as Tewdoros had hoped. The British launched one of the biggest and most costly invasions of the nineteenth century, and the Ethiopians were soundly defeated at the Battle of Magdala. Facing capture and humiliation, Tewdoros offed himself. Ethiopia’s rebirth as a unified nation had to wait until the ascendancy of Emperor Yohannes IV of Tigray.
Yohannes IV was later killed fighting against the Mahadists in Sudan, thereby becoming one of the world’s last crowned heads of state to die in combat.
This is the last of eight parts
All photos by author