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Gondar, founded by Emperor Fasilidas around 1635, is famous for its many medieval castles and the design and decoration of its churches - in particular, Debra Berhan Selassie which represents a masterpiece of the Gondarene school of art.

Famous though Gondar may be, however, no one knows exactly why Fasilidas chose to establish his headquarters there. Some legends say an archangel prophesied that an Ethiopian capital would be built at a place with a name that began with the letter G. The legend led to a whole series of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century towns - Guzara, Gorgora and finally Gondar. Another legend claims that the city was built in a place chosen by God. Apparently, He pointed it out to Fasilidas who was on a hunting expedition and followed a buffalo to the spot.

Flanked by twin mountain streams at an altitude of more than 2,300 meters Gondar commands spectacular views over farmlands to the gleaming waters of Lake Tana thirty-five kilometers to the south. The city retains an atmosphere of antique charm mingled with an aura of mystery and violence. An extensive compound, near its center contains the hulking ruins of a group of imposing castles like some African Camelot. 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 Machiavellian plots and intrigues, tortures and poisonings.

The main castle was built in the late 1630s and early 1640s on the orders of Fasilidas. The Emperor, who was greatly interested in architecture - St Marys in Axum was another of his works - was also responsible for seven churches, a number of bridges, and a three-story stone pavilion next to a large, sunken bathing place, rectangular in shape, which is still filled during the Timkat season with water from the nearby Qaha river.

Other structures date from later periods. Iyasu the Great, a grandson of Fasilidas, was particularly active. His castle, centrally located in the main compound, was described at the time by his chronicler as finer than the House of Solomon. Its inner walls were decorated with ivory, mirrors and paintings of palm trees, its ceiling covered with gold-leaf and precious stones. Now gutted, haunted only by ghosts, the intact turrets and towers of this fine stronghold reflect its past glory.

Iyasus most lasting achievement, was the Church of Debra Berhan Selassie, the Light of the Trinity, which stands, surrounded by a high wall, on raised ground to the north-west of the city and continues to be in regular use. A plain, thatched, rectangular structure on the outside, the interior of Debra Berhan Selassie is marvelously painted with a great many scenes from religious history. The spaces between the beams of the ceiling contain the brilliant wide-eyed images of more than eighty angels faces - all different, with their own character and expressions. The north wall, in which is the holy of holies, is dominated by a depiction of the Trinity above the crucifixion. The theme of the south wall is St Mary; that of the east wall the life of Jesus. The west wall shows important saints, with St George in red-and-gold on a prancing white horse.

Not long after completing this remarkable and impressive work, Iyasu went into deep depression when his favorite concubine died. He abandoned affairs of state and his son, Tekla Haimanot, responded by declaring himself Emperor. Shortly afterwards, in 1706, his father was assassinated on his orders.

In turn, Tekla Haimanot was murdered. His successor was also forcibly deposed and the next monarch was poisoned. The brutalities came to an end with Emperor Bakaffa who left two fine castles - one attributed directly to him and one to his consort, the Empress Mentewab.

Bakaffas successor, Iyasu II, is regarded by most historians as the last of the Gondar Emperors to rule with full authority. During his reign, work began on a whole range of new buildings outside the main palace compound. The monarch also developed the hills north-west of the city center known as Kweskwam - after the home of the Virgin Mary. Most buildings there are in ruins today, including the largest - a square, three-storey castle with a flat roof and crenellated walls embellished with a series of bas-reliefs of various Ethiopian animals.

After Iyasu II in the mid-1700s, the realm sank into increasing chaos with regular coups d,etat and the rise of a rebellious nobility who became dominant in Ethiopian national life.

The story of Gondar, however, amounts to a great deal more than the annals of the monarchs who ruled there or chronicles of their rivalries and intrigues.

While it remained the capital of Ethiopia until 1855, the city was a vigorous and vital center of religious learning and art. Painting and music, dance and poetry, together with skilled instruction in these and many other disciplines, thrived for more than two hundred years. At the end of the eighteenth century a poet declaimed:

Beautiful from its beginnings, Gondar, hope of the wretched! And hope of the Great, Gondar without measure or bounds! 0 dove of John, Gondar, generous-hearted, mother!< Gondar, never bowed by affliction! Gondar with its merry name! Gondar, seat of prosperity and of savory food! Gondar, dwelling of King Iyasu and of mighty Bakaffa!
Gondar, which emulated the City of David, the land of Salem! She will be a myth unto eternity!

Gondars rise to prominence under Fasilidas occurred little less than a century after Ethiopian Christendom had come close to total destruction at the hands of the Islamic warlord, Ahmed Gragn, whose forces swept in from the east in 1528. The fighting only ended in 1543 when the Muslim commander was shot dead by a Portuguese musketeer - one of 400 who had been sent to reinforce the flagging armies of Emperor Galawdewos.

Narrating Gragn,s fate, the British traveler Sir Richard Burton wrote: Thus perished the African hero who dashed to pieces the structure of 2,500 years. It was no exaggeration. Gragn,s Jihad was a national catastrophe for Ethiopia. The Christian highlands, from Axum in the north to the shores of Lake Tana in the west, were almost completely overrun for more than a decade and much of the cultural legacy of previous centuries disappeared. In a sustained orgy of vandalism, hundreds of churches - great artistic treasure- houses - were looted and burnt and an immense booty carried away.

Gondar, beautiful from its beginnings, rose from the ashes of this smoldering backdrop of so recent and so traumatic a history. There can be little doubt that Fasilidas and his successors saw their elegant capital as a phoenix and so patronized the arts. They were doing nothing less than rebuilding their national heritage. In the process they built faithfully on the few solid foundations left from the past, rediscovered much that had been thought lost, and established a sense of purpose and a new direction for the future.

Sculpture, as one authority observes, makes little appeal to the Ethiopians, who have, however, a pronounced interest in pictorial art. This fascination with painting, mainly expressed through church murals, icons, illuminated manuscripts and scrolls, has been long sustained. It dates back to the beginnings of the Christian era at least; but the depredations of Gragn and other invaders mean that relatively little from earlier than the sixteenth century has been preserved.

From what is available, academics have identified two principal epochs. The first is known as the medieval, with paintings that have origins in a remote past. The surviving exemplars date roughly from the thirteenth to the early sixteenth centuries, before Gragn. The second period, referred to as Gondarene, began in the seventeenth century with the founding of the city. Despite the subsequent introduction of a number of important innovations, this period extends through to modern times.

The medieval school of Ethiopian painting was dominated by Byzantine influences. By contrast, the identifying hallmark of the Gondarene period is an increasingly Western European approach. The difference between the two styles and, indeed, between contemporary Ethiopian art and works executed in antiquity, is not so very great. One leading expert says it is surprising how invariable are the basic canons of the traditional Ethiopian painter. They have not changed substantially in the last six centuries, which gives us good reason to believe that they were the same a thousand years ago.

Confronted with a collection of Ethiopian paintings dating from several widely separated centuries, the layman is most likely to be struck by the essential similarities that link all the works. Furthermore, the unifying impetus that shines through all the paintings is essentially Ethiopian: an indigenous input of great force and originality.

Religious themes dominate all but the most recent Ethiopian art, hardly surprising since painting was introduced into the country along with Christianity. In particular, the Holy Scriptures were imported exclusively from the Byzantine world and were illuminated, naturally, in the Byzantine style. Thereafter, from generation to generation, they were translated and recopied in Ethiopian churches and monasteries.

It was inevitable, given that calligraphers and decorators were essentially copyists, that the works of the medieval period should so strongly reflect Byzantine rules. Thus, for example, the rigid and lifeless persons depicted are indicators of spiritual hierarchy. The center-ground of almost every painting is occupied by the principal character in the scriptural story told. Invariably, colors used fall within a limited range - green, red, yellow and blue - and, again, this is in accord with the criteria of the Byzantine world.

Despite such restrictions, Ethiopian artists of the medieval school managed to interpret their genre in a fresh and individual manner. What they sought was not to represent or mimic reality but to manifest their religious belief and feelings through color and design. One particularly effective convention among their original contributions was the presentation of good in full face and of evil in profile.

Even after the demise of the medieval period and the foundation of Gondar, scriptural themes maintained their importance in Ethiopian art. The range of stories, however, increased dramatically. The Virgin Mary became an increasingly popular subject as did the lives and acts of the saints. Stylistically, from the beginning there was a willingness to adopt new models - for example Renaissance or Baroque paintings. These models emanated from the expansive and powerful Western civilizations with which Ethiopia came into contact from the sixteenth century. Naturalism became more acceptable and a conscious effort was made by at least some artists to depart from stiff and geometrical Byzantine lines. Perspective and relief were introduced, together with motion and elaborate details. This new realism also brought with it an eagerness to depict the Ethiopian way of life, thus surrounding even the most spiritual subjects you may sometimes distinguish the presence of everyday objects such as houses, weapons and baskets. Most notable of all is the manner in which the personalities depicted in the best Gondarene works are no longer flat or inanimate but full of life. Eyes that were immobile move in different directions, bodies bend and hands express feeling.

These lifelike qualities - combined with a Baroque richness of design, a warmth of color and a careful finish distinguish the dazzling paintings of the Debra Berhan Selassie church in Gondar. The same may also be said of another fine group of paintings in the church of Debra Sina at Gorgora - an ancient settlement on the northern shores of Lake Tana. Although this large, thatched edifice was built during the early years of the fourteenth century, its interior was extensively restored by Emperor Fasilidas, his sister Woizero Meleko Tawit and various successors. As a result the Debra Sina murals belong firmly to the Gondarene rather than the medieval period.

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