Gonder and its Medieval Period Palaces, Castles and Churches


Gondar anThe historic Gonderine town is very popular mainly because of the marvelous castles in the royal enclosure. There are six graceful castles in the palace compound built by the successive Gonderine Kings of the 17th and 18th centuries. The tradition was first set by Emperor Fassiledes and then followed by his successors. The castle were built from local stone, hard dark brown basalt and red volcanic lava held together with lime mortar withing the fortified royal compound at about 70,000 square meters. The 12 symbolic entrance (gates) of the palace compound have various names and represent the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ.


Castle of Fasildes

Castle of Fasildes

It is the oldest castle whose construction is said to have been started by Emperor Fasildes (1632-1667), continued by Yohannes (1667-1682) and completed by Iyasu the Great (1682-1706).
It is the largest and the most impressive of all castles, located to the south, near the wall of the enclosure.
It is a two-storey rectangular castle with a stair case of 123 steps and four round corner towers.

It large square tower on the roof provides a good view of the enclosure and the surrounding areas all the way to Lake Tana

It has massive beams, cedar doors, a flat roof and a high flat-footed tower, up on which religious ceremonies were conducted from where the Emperor used to address his people.
The four circular doomed towers at each corner of the castle were also used as prayer rooms for the Emperor.
Many fortifications surround the upper tower, which are believed to have been built in order to defend the palace.
Inside, there are more than 20 rooms with elaborate archways and carvings comprising the Star of David.


Castle of Yohannes
Castle of Iyasu the Great

It is a small and two-storied rectangular building, built by Emperor Yohannes, son and successor of Fasildes.
It is commonly known as the ‘Library of Yohannes’.


Castle of Iyasu the Great


It is a rectangular two-storied building, built by Iyasu I. It has two corner towers, one square and the other round. It looks like the saddle-shaped castle and very impressive because of its high doomed roof and a stone, spiral stair case.

Castle of Iyasu the Great   Gonder
Castle of Bakaffa
Tana Chrikos
It is located near Gorgora town at the northern end of Lake and the remains of Susenyos palace is found in its surroundings.
It is famous by its very impressive Gonderine style wall paintings dated to the 17th century and sponsored by princes Melkotawit, sister of Emperor Susenyos (r. 1607 -1632).
Castle of Dawit lll


It was built by Emperor Dawit (1716-1721)
It is a kind of celebration hall, locally known as the ‘house of song’
Many ceremonies is said to have been conducted in this hall.

Castle of Mintwab


It is a two-storied castle decorated with carving of crosses.
Empress Mintwab (wife of Emperor Bekaffa and mother of Iyasu II) built it.

In addition to the aforementioned castles, there are other structures within the royal enclosure. Some of which are the following;

    • The sunken area between the castle of Fasiledes and Iyasu the Great, which is commonly called the ‘swimming pool’.
    • A small ruined castle of Fasiledes north east of Iyasu’s I castle
    • The chancellery of Yohannes I, situated beyond the Library on the left side. There is also a square tower at the North West corner of the chancellery.
    • The ‘lion house’ built by Emperor Dawit.
    • Ruined buildings that were served as a house of assembly and two public squares that were used for proclamations.
    • A steam bath or sauna room whose construction is attributed to Iyasu the Great.
    • The grave of Walter J. Plowen; he was one of the well-known 19th century foreign travelers to Ethiopia. He was also a British counsel and a close friend of Emperor Tewodros (1855-1868)
    • The churches of Gimjabet Mariam, Atatami Michael and Ilifgn Girogis, which were constructed from the same materials of the castles and are decorated with mural paintings of Biblical themes.
Gonderine Buildings outside the palace Compound
There are many beautiful historic structures outside the Gonderine royal enclosure (palace compound). Some of them are the following:-

Ras Gimb

  • Located at about 280meters to the north of the palace compound
  • It is two-storey small building and architecturally similar to the castle of Fasiedes
  • Attributed to Ras Bitwoded Welde Leul, uncle and right hand of Empress Mintwab.
  • Usually associated with Ras Mikael Sehul of Tigray because he stayed there for some years.

The Fassilades Bath

    • Located at about 2km North West of the palace compound and its construction is attributed to Emperor Fasileds.
    • It is a two-storey square building surrounded by a rectangular neatly walled depression. The pool is filled with water once a year for the celebration of Timket (Ethiopian Epiphany), that falls on January 19.
    • In the nearby area, the runis of a small building is standing. It is said to have been the mausoleums of a horse named Zobel, which belonged to Emperor Fasildes.

BaThe Qusquam Church

    • Situated at about 3.5km northeast of the town and its construction is attributed to Queen Mintwab.
    • It comprises the large outer wall divided by a series of arches, a second circular wall, and then the square sanctuary in the middle.
    • The walls of the sanctuary are decorated with the old Gonderine style monuments.
    • It houses the skeletal remains of Empress Mintwab, her son Emperor Iyasu II, and grandson Emperor Iyoas, which are put together in a glass-topped box.
    • The towers in the surrounding wall of the church compound were used by the priests for storage and as residence.
    • East of the church compound, there is another separate compound that comprises ruins of the palace, the residence of Queen Mintwab, a chapel and the reception of hall used by Mintwab, and the residence of Library of James Bruce, Scottish explorer of the 18th century.

Debre Berhane Selassie Church

    • It is located at about 2km to the north east of the palace compound, in the outskirts of the city.
    • Its construction is attributed to Iyasu the Great. It has been said that Iyasu the Great was planned to bring the Ark of the Covenant to this church from Axum.
    • Access to the church is through a large two-storey square tower that rises from the compound wall. The bottom of the tower has two arched doorways, each with a large painting of an archangel.
    • There are a number of conical towers in the high wall of the church compound and some of which are still used by priests as residence and for prayer.
    • The church is a rectangular in shape and built from the same materials as used for the prominent castles
    • The corrugated iron sheet now replaces the original thatched cover. However, there is a small thatch cover on the top of the roof.
    • Its ceilings are decorated with the paintings of many wide-eyed images of winged angels in traditional Ethiopian artistic style.
    • The walls of the church are also adorned with paintings that depict biblical features including the Holy Trinity, the life of Christ on earth, of St. Mary and the Saints and Martyrs.
    • It is the only Gonderine Church that survived the attack of the Mahdists in 1880s.