(Architecture Series) Fasil Ghebbi: the 20-palace complex of 17th Century Ethiopia

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Up until the 17th century, notably between the 13th and 17th century, Ethiopian emperors did not have any permanent location or structure within their territory in which they resided. They were always on the move with their royal camps referred to as “Katama[1]” Living off the proceeds of their subjects where ever they temporarily settled, this was an Ethiopian tradition. 


This centuries-old tradition was broken by Emperor Fasilides, a member of the Solomonic dynasty who reigned from 1632 to 1667. In 1636  he built a small city in Gondar, a fortress befitting his status as emperor and established it as a capital for future emperors, thus ending the nomadic lifestyle of living in tents and moving from place to place by his predecessors. This fortress-city is called Fasil Ghebbi. Ghebbi is an Amharic word that means compound or enclosure[2]. In other words, Fasil Ghebbi translates to Fasil’s Enclosure or compound.



Covering about 70,000 square meters of land, Fasil Ghebbi is located at the Amhara region in North Gondar, Ethiopia. And enclosed by a 900-meter long wall with 12 gated towers. To its south is a city park, although during the active years of the Fasil Ghebbi it used to be an important market known as Adababay, a popular venue were royal functions were held like imperial proclamations, troops presentation, and even executions. At the Northwest of the city, there is a bathing palace built by Emperor Fasilides; it is a two-story pavilion that stands on pier arches and accessed by a stone bridge that also serves as a defense when raised. The bathing palace is a battlemented structure and at its side is a big rectangular pool of water, the water is supplied by the Qaha river nearby.


There aren’t as many structures in the beginning during the reign of Emperor Fasilides as compared to when the last Emperor resided in the royal city-fortress in 1864, this can be attributed to the tradition of  Ethiopian emperors of not occupying the palace of their predecessor but rather building their own palace or castles. As a result, presently the Fasil Ghebbi has some 20 palaces, and numerous royal buildings including churches, monasteries, stables, Library, chancellery, unique public and private buildings and even bridges[3]. Notable structures in the fortress city include The Castles of Emperor Fasilides, Emperor Iyasu, and Emperor David; The Palaces of Mentuab and Guzara; the Library and chancellery of Tzadich Yohannes; the Banqueting Hall of Emperor Bekaffa; three churches and lots of other structures.


Its architecture is unique and diverse, incorporating different styles like Baroque which was introduced to Gondar by the Jesuit missionaries, Nubian, European, Hindu, and Arab styles, all thanks to the contributions of successive emperors. The Fasil Ghebbi does not only demonstrate this interface or knowledge of local and foreign cultures in its architectural designs, the paintings, handicrafts, music and even literature that was in practice during those times reflects a rich knowledge of other cultures and points to how widely traveled and popular Ethiopian emperors were.


The stone wall enclosure of the Fasil Ghebbi has 12 named gates some of which have bridges that link them to other locations or churches.


The Fit ber, this gate leads to the Adababay market. The Wember Ber (Gate of the Judges). Tazkaro Ber (Gate of funeral commemoration). Azaj Tequre Ber, it was once connected by a bridge to a church in Adababay. Adenegar Ber (Gate of the Spinners), Linked by a bridge to Qeddus Rafael Church. Qwali Ber (Gate of the Queens Attendants). Imbilta Ber (Gate of the Musicians). Elfign Ber (Gate of the Privy Chamber), it was the access to private apartments in the city. Baldras Ber (Gate of the Commander of the Calvary). Ras Ber or Qwarenyoch Ber(Gate of the Ras or Gate of the Qwara). Ergeb Ber or Kechin Ashawa Ber (Gate of pigeons or Gate of the Gifts). Inqoye Ber (Gate of Princess Inqoye). Gimjabet Ber (Gate of the Treasury of Mary), this leads to Gimjabet Mariyam church.


Some of the structures are in ruins owing to several factors. Top among the list are wars. The Mehdist war saw the Sudanese attack and loot structures in the city, The British air raids during world war 2 saw many of the buildings damaged and even destroyed, many of the buildings also saw considerable damage and neglect during the Italian Occupation.

Even after its decline ruin and decay of some of its structures, the Fasil Ghebbi is still of a major significance to the Ethiopian people and indeed the world, it is still of immense value given that it still retains most of the important attributes that substantiate its value.

In 1979 it was inscribed a UNESCO world heritage site. Majority of the structures over the centuries have remained in an overall good state. Although much work is still needed to be done to further improve, prevent further decay and maintain its overall conditions so as to preserve its historic value.

Some conservation efforts carried out between 1930 and 1936 did more harm than good, this was because cement and reinforced concrete were used which resulted in damage to the original materials. This was to some extent restored by UNESCO in the ’70s by replacing the cement, and concrete works with original mixes of lime mortar followed up by subsequent major intervention programmes. In 2005 Fasil Ghebbi was opened to the public. Over the years it has attracted millions of visitors and remains one of the fascinating attractions in Ethiopia.




[1]  Munro-Hay, 2002.

[2] Appleyard, David, 2013.

[3] https://www.ethiovisit.com

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(Architecture Series) Fasil Ghebbi: the 20-palace complex of 17th Century Ethiopia

by Editorial Team time to read: 4 min