It’s not what Gonder is, but what Gonder was that’s so enthralling. The city lies in a bowl of hills where tall trees shelter tin-roofed stone houses, but rising above these, and standing proud through the centuries, are the walls of castles bathed in blood and painted in the pomp of royalty. Often called the Camelot of Africa, this description does the royal city a disservice: Camelot is legend, whereas Gonder is reality.
Surrounded by fertile land and lying at the crossroads of three major caravan routes, it’s easy to understand why Emperor Fasiladas (reigned 1632–67) made Gonder his capital in 1636. To the southwest lay rich sources of gold, civet, ivory and slaves, to the northeast lay Massawa and access to the Red Sea, and to the northwest lay Sudan and Egypt.
At the time of Fasiladas’ death, Gonder’s population already exceeded 65,000 and its wealth and splendour had become legendary. Drifting through the old palaces, banqueting halls and former gardens, it’s not difficult to imagine the courtly pageantry, ceremony and intrigue that went on here.
The city flourished as a capital for well over a century before infighting severely weakened the kingdom. In the 1880s what remained of Gonder was extensively looted by the Sudanese Dervishes. Despite this, and further damage sustained by British bombs during the liberation campaign of 1941, much of Gonder remains intact.
Although Gonder is fairly spread out, it’s still a great place to navigate on foot. The Italian-built piazza marks the centre of town and packs in most shops and services travellers need. The Royal Enclosure is just south of the piazza while the road leading north is dotted with restaurants and hotels.
Need to know
Gonder destination guides
Lonely Planet: Roads Less Travelled Ethiopia itinerary
A day spent negotiating Harar's maze of cobblestone alleyways is the perfect start for a journey to Ethiopia's hidden corners. Stretching northwards from here are the lands of the Afar, extending all the way to the infamous Danakil Depression – the hottest place on earth.
Highlands of Ethiopia
Combine a trek in the wild and stunning Simien Mountains with Ethiopia's historic sites
Highlights of Ethiopia
Rich with natural contrast, captivating human history and countless surprises, Ethiopia has long been an intersection between the civilizations of North Africa, the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. This 15-day adventure is perfect for the traveller looking to delve into the history and culture of this incredibly diverse land like few others do.