The land in northern Ethiopia left behind by that country’s Jews was once known as the Kingdom of Gondar. The Ethiopian Jews are gone, but Gondar remains.
Went last weekend down to the WorldBeat Cultural Center in San Diego’s Balboa Park to check out a photographic exhibit on Ethiopian Jews. It was a visit that may one day lead to a trip to East Africa.
But first, some background. The Jewish kingdom in Ethiopia is known as Beta Israel, or the House of Israel. It also was known as the Kingdom of Gondar.
Ethiopia’s Christian majority had a different name for them — falashas, meaning invaders, exiles, aliens. It was a clue to what they had in store for the House of Israel.
Ethiopian Jews were persecuted for centuries.
It got worse in the 1600s, when the Portugese arrived and convinced Ethiopia’s rulers that Judaism was a threat. The Ethiopian Jews were attacked, forced to become Christians and then sold into slavery. Their ancient history books and religious texts were burned.
Those who could neither fight nor flee killed themselves.
Modern times weren’t much better. A 1935 invasion by Italy killed hundreds of Ethiopian Jews. From 1977 to 1987, then-Marxist dictator Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam made the falashas his pet project, banning Judaism, forcing them off their farms, forcing 12-year-old boys into the army.
GOOD-BYE PERSECUTION, HELLO RACISM
Israel began airlifting Ethiopian Jews in earnest in 1991. Since then, more than 80,000 have emigrated to Israel, with another 35,000 born there — a noble gesture and one of the world’s great “feel good” stories.
Not all Israelis welcomed these newcomers, though. Ethiopian Jews who fled religious persecution in East Africa now found themselves facing racism in Israel.
One Israeli immigration official described them as “being a backward element…their development and mental outlook is that of children.” Black Americans who know their own history will have no trouble decoding those comments.
These days, there are very few Jews left in Ethiopia. However, as I was researching this history, I learned something else.
Gondar still exists.
Today, it’s both a city and a separate district known as a woreda, with a population of about 235,000. But this was once the imperial capital of Ethiopia. From the 12th century to the 20th, a series of emperors called this place home.
Some of those imperial homes still stand today in what is known as Fasil Ghebbi, the Royal Enclosure, a walled 19-acre compound of raised walkways, connecting tunnels…and a half-dozen castles, monasteries, churches and other buildings.
It is this complex that gave Gondar the nickname “the Camelot of Africa.”
The entire compound is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, headed up by Fasilides Castle, named for the Ethiopian emperor who built it and was the first of a string of Ethiopian emperors to call it home.
It also includes a massive baptismal font still used today for the annual religious celebration known as Timket, which Ethiopians celebrate around the world.
THE BEES THAT SAVED A CHURCH
Nowadays, we all know about Africanized bees — the so-called “killer bees” — that were brought to Brazil in a scientific experiment, only to escape in 1958 and slowly make their way north, terrorizing nations as they went.
In Ethiopia, however, these bees may be viewed a bit more kindly.
It has to do with the Debre Birhan Selassie Church, also known as the Trinity Church, built in the 1600s by the Christian Ethiopian emperor Iyasu II. Its walls and ceiling are literally covered with paintings of Biblical scenes.
When Sudanese Muslims led by a man who called himself “the Mahdi” invaded Ethiopia in 1888, bent on forcibly converting Ethiopia to Islam, they destroyed 43 of Gondar’s 44 churches — all except Emperor Iyasu’s church.
Legend has it that when the Mahdi’s men came to burn it down, the bees kept in the church orchard took exception to that… strenuously.
Again and again, they came back to torch the church — but the bees, for whatever reason, were just not havin’ it. The Mahdi’s men, tired of getting the Hell stung out of them, eventually took the hint and moved on.
There’s also a belief that an archangel with a flaming sword fended off the Mahdi’s attackers. No disrespect to archangels, but my money’s on the bees.
Either way, the Trinity Church and all its 400-year-old floor-to-ceiling paintings still stand today. If you want to get pictures of those paintings, bring a tripod for your camera; no flash photography is allowed inside.
IT’S A “G” THING
Gondar sits relatively high in the bowl of a mountain valley 7,000 feet high — too high, apparently, for the malaria-carrying mosquitoes that plague the lower countryside. Historians think that might be one reason Fasilides chose this spot to build his imperial capital.
Others believe it was a “G” thing, literally. According to legend, an archangel prophesied that the Ethiopian capital would be built in a town whose name began with a “G.”
When you look at Fasil Ghebbi, you see a place that, in its heyday, must have have displayed great beauty, majesty, dignity. But inside the palace walls, some serious mischief was afoot — plots, betrayals, junior family members gaining the throne by murdering their elders.
Shakespeare would’ve loved this place. Some of the folks who lived within these walls could’ve taught Machiavelli a few tricks. In the words of ethiopiatravel.com:
“The battlements and towers evoke images of chivalrous knights on horseback and of ceremonies laden with pageantry and honor. Other, darker, reverberations recall chilling echoes of…plots and intrigues, tortures and poisonings.”
Even today, the author writes, “The (compound) retains an atmosphere of antique charm mingled with an aura of mystery and violence.”
Other worthwhile sites in an around Gondar include:
- the Qusquam Palace
- Debre Sina Mariam in Gorgora
- the Awramba Society, the only atheist communnity in Ethiopia
The mountains that define the valley in which Gondar sits also provide the setting for the staggeringly beautiful Semien Mountains National Park, another World Heritage Site.
The story of Beta Israel is one of travail and endurance, but the land they left behind has more than a few stories of its own — and a lot worth seeing.
Gondar is on my list.
IF YOU GO
Ethiopian Airlines has a brnad-new Boeing 787 Dreamliner that can fly you non-stop from Washington DC’s Dulles International Airport to the present-day Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Other flights are available from Houston.
From Addis Ababa, Ethiopian has connecting flights to Gondar’s modest airport.
It would be a lot cheaper to take a bus or minibus to Gondar. It also will take a lot longer — an entire day, possibly two.
The Taye, Quara and Goha hotels are consistently the two top-rated hotels in town, with the Florida International Hotel and the Capra Walla Inn being the two bed-and-breakfast lodging most favored by TripAdvisor.