My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Thursday, 14 January 2016

The Fasil Ghebbi compound in Gondar

The Egg Building in the Fasil Ghebbi compound Gondar

We are on a Christian pilgrimage to Ethiopia with McCabe Pilgrimages. To quote from their website, "as pilgrims, we travel to discover more about our world, the peoples who inhabit it and the faith which shapes our understanding of life."

the fireplace separating male and female rooms and note
the holes for horns to hang meat
In Ethiopia, we are discovering more about the largest Oriental Orthodox church in the world today… and as with all McCabe pilgrimages, we try to engage with the local Christian community and return home with fresh insights into our own faith, enriched by all that we have experienced as we journey together.

one of the lions' cages
We are nearing the end of our visit to this fabulous country, and have already enjoyed many extraordinary experiences. But we still look forward to much more. Today, after visiting Debre Birhan Selassie (or Mountain of the Enlightened Trinity) we visit the Royal Enclosure or Fasil Ghebbi compound in Gondar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, enclosing six castles and related buildings over an area of 70,000 square metres in the heart of the city. This is a great fortress-city, residence of its founder the Ethiopian emperor Fasilides and his successors.

The Emperor was tired of the pattern of migration that had characterised the lifestyle of so many of his forefathers, so he moved his capital here in 1636 AD. It is a photographer and tourist paradise, with great historical significance, as well as a place where locals also like to come to stroll and relax in a green haven of peace away from the city bustle and noise just the other side of its high stone walls.
The locals call the first castle we come to the Egg Building, because of the domed tops of its watchtowers. Inside the main hall is split into two, segregating the men and the women, sharing only a fireplace built into the wall between the two rooms. We are shown holes in the wall where meat was hung on horns because metal hooks would spoil the flavour. These horns are also seen in the Turkish Baths on the site, in this case used to hang clothes.

horn hooks for clothes in the Turkish Baths
Three of the castles are interconnected by trenches. We see the so called Window of Love, where the Emperor and his wife would apparently like to sit enjoying the pleasant view to the bridge and the people going about their business outside the castle.

A beehive high up in a tree is wrapped in savannah grass to protect it from the rain. Honey is introduced to attract bees and there can be as many as four harvests in one year if conditions are favourable.

the Mentewab Castle
We also see the old lion cages - where the poor beasts were kept until as recently as the 1960s - some guidebooks say the 1990s - to entertain the residents of the castles and their guests. There are stables and a stable yard to accommodate the horses of guests as well, and a banquet hall.
The sixth and last castle we visit was the only one commissioned by a female, Empress Mentewab, acting as regent for her young son, Iyasu II. It is the most impressive and well preserved of them all, decorated on the outside with Gondarine crosses. We can only view from outside the gates - we are not allowed near. 
entrance to the King's Baths

the channel to fill the King's Baths
We drive back through the town towards the King's Baths, also attributed to the same Emperor, and the site we are told of one of the best Epiphany festivals of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Here 10,000 or more pilgrims will gather annually and the huge reservoir is filled up from the local river for this occasion. It takes a month to fill. The Ark of the Covenant is brought from the local church in procession and the water is blessed. Everyone will try to be sprinkled with this Holy water, and many will swim in the water as well. There is song, dance, and a great mixture of religious and secular activity. Having experienced the recent festival in Lalibela we can well imagine what an incredible sight this must be. Scaffolding is erected at the far end of the bath for tourists - everyone else has to join the milling crowds, no doubt many climbing any available trees for better views of the activities. Johannes tells us that this festival of Epiphany is also a traditional time for dating. Boys would buy lemons and throw them at the girl of their fancy. If she picks it up he knows he is in with a chance. Nowadays, he says, they expect Apple iPods!!

the King's Baths
It's been a full day 
and tiring. 
But we somehow find the energy at the Four Sisters restaurant to join in the dancing around the tables with the curious shoulder, neck and arm movements - even somehow employing bosoms and hips - which seem quite unique to Ethiopia. The dancers display incredible energy and flexibility which we cannot hope to achieve so soon in our stay - although some of us have a reasonable attempt in a day or so in a night club in Bahir Dar! Dancing and entertainment is good enough reason to come to this restaurant if you are in Gondar, but the food is also fabulous - many different traditional Ethiopian dishes, alongside some more westernised offerings, all very well labelled and very veggie friendly - and as much as you can eat - come and come again style. It was a very good evening out, a great way to unwind and relax after what have been some very full days.

The sun sets over Mayleko Lodge. Tomorrow is Sunday and we will return to the church we saw today to experience a service Ethiopian Orthodox style…

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