Gonder, Ethiopia

Gonder was at the height of its prosperity at the turn of the eighteenth century, when it may have had a population of seventy thousand.  Emperor Fasilidades, who founded the new capital around 1635, obviously hoped to create a strong center around which the remnants of the Christian north could rally.  He picked a beautiful site, a flat volcanic ridge at seven thousand feet surrounded by mountains on three sides, but with easy access to Lake Tana in the south.  Gonder’s climate is warm during the day, cool at night, its two streams afforded plentiful water supplies and its hinterland abundant wood and produce.

Enough of an urban economy arose to sustain architecture, music, poetry, literature, painting, calligraphy, and educational, religious, and social institutions.  The emperors appeared in considerable state, surrounded by courtiers, clergy, and soldiers…

Image result for gondar ethiopia

The aristocracy and the monarchy supported the artists and artisans who put up buildings, illuminated manuscripts, decorates the interior of churches and palaces, and worked stone, wood, or pottery.  The town’s castles and other monuments were built of hewn brown basalt blocks and contained features that derived from Axumite and Zagwe times as well as Portuguese models.  They were concentrated in the center of the town, and provided a sharp contrast with the traditional round, thatched, mud wattled homes of the people.

Image result for gondar ethiopia church

That is all from the excellent Harold G. Marcus, A History of Ethiopia.


One of the benefits of autocracy is that the rulers spend their money on architecture, music, poetry, literature, painting, calligraphy, and educational, religious, and social institutions. Democracies spend vastly more money on Food Stamps and the like.

Future generations benefit a lot more from the autocracies.

That's a good point but not universal. Florence under the Medici (and many other similar states) weren't autocracies but left a rich legacy thanks to family patronage. Few 20th century autocracies left anything of value - perhaps some of Mussolini's buildings are an exception?

Is one allowed to like the railway station in Milan?

WKPD: "the project ... kept changing and became more and more complex and majestic. This happened especially when Benito Mussolini became Prime Minister, and wanted the station to represent the power of the Fascist regime. ... Construction resumed in earnest in 1925 and on July 1, 1931, the station was officially opened ..."

Whoa, slow down:
- The Soviet mass song, Prokofiev, Richter, Rostropovich, etc.;
- Stalinist architecture and sculpture, the Moscow Metro and early Soviet experimental architecture like the Tatlin tower;
- Soviet film industry that gave us Battleship Potyomkin, Alexander Nevsky, Solyaris, Stalker, etc.;
- The highly experimental and diverse Soviet cartoon (in contrast to the commerce-driven democratic cartoon);
- The Soviet political poster, especially in the 1920s;
- Soviet literature and poetry (whether non-dissident or, indirectly, dissident);
- Soviet mathematics and physics.

Every cultural sphere, essentially, except maybe painting, and disproportionally the kind of spheres that require money and a big economy. E.g., you don't need a spectacular economy to sustain someone like Chinua Achebe or V. S. Naipaul.

The Nazis survived for less than a decade, but Arno Breker's statues, Carl Orff's state-sponsored music, the Germania project are all extremely impressive. Besides, the whole party might be seen as an art project of a sort - look how its style and ideas resonate.

Soviet literature and poetry (whether non-dissident or, indirectly, dissident);

But Soviet literature is so dire and pre-Revolutionary Russian literature so rich. The Revolution killed Russian literature and poetry. The only good writers and/or poets were either killed or persecuted - Bulgakov, Pasternak, Zamyatin - maybe Grossman. The Party only rewarded hacks.

The Nazis survived for less than a decade, but Arno Breker's statues, Carl Orff's state-sponsored music, the Germania project are all extremely impressive.

It is probably unacceptable to mention Nuremberg's Zeppelin Field but I have always had a soft spot for Templehof. Anddefinitely Breker. There is no denying Leni Riefenstahl was a Nazi and a great film maker too.

Agreed. One could recognise the failure of the Soviet Union, even if you knew nothing of its politics, through the crassness and dullness of its art.

Not that a lot of Nazi art was much better, but they did seem to produce some items with last aesthetic merit.

Perhaps they simply didn't have time to ossify? Even in the Soviet Union, there are a few 1920's pieces of note before Socialist Realism crushes everything in the 1930's. In this case, the German defeat simply spared us endless posters of Aryan Herrenvolk striding through golden fields of corn....

Ethiopia's more recent Communist autocracy simply left two million people dead. Not much of a legacy for future generations there.

Gonder calls for (Foreign) aid!

Nice. I was gonna go with 'watch out for that Denethor guy, he's a little unstable.'

Someone definitely should have told him too much time on his Smart phone is bad for his mental health.

I haven't been able to find a good economic history of Ethiopia. Any ideas anyone?

The Black Book of Communism has some discussion of Mengistu's famine.

Thanks but I am more interested in pre-WW2 stuff.

The late Richard Pankhurst had a fairly comprehensive book that covered Ethiopian economic history until the Italian invasion, which is probably up your alley, although I imagine it's nigh impossible to find as it's quite old (some might find it methodologically lacking as a result).

Here it is:


Its easy enough to find in Ethiopia, and I would imagine you'd find it as well in any large reference library in the West with a good Africa section.

Like you said, out of date, but still lots and lots of good stuff compiled there, and you probably won't find it anywhere else. Pankhurst's Social History of Ethiopia is, likewise, a treasure trove of Ethiopica...

I once jokingly defined Ethiopian studies as "anything written about, or prefaced by, Dr. Richard Pankhurst..."

The Camelot of Africa. Also spelled Gondar. Ethiopia has a long history of Christianity, the apostle Matthew supposedly having preached the gospel in Ethiopia. After the emergence of Islam in the 7th century, Ethiopia became isolated from the rest of the Christian world, but it has survived as a mostly Christian nation and is known for its many churches. In 1668, the Emperor Yohannes I ruled that the inhabitants of Gonder were to be segregated by religion, which forced Muslims to move to their own quarter (Addis Alem). Today, roughly 85% of the inhabitants of Gonder identify as Christian.

Do the natives do little dances?

The certainly do in Brazil.

No, they don't. Only festival related dances and mostly the poorest classes. They do it because they want not to please tourists.

Brazil is famous for the lambada, aka "the forbidden dance."

It is not a "little dance", it is not performed to amuse fat, White tourists, and it is actually an import. Samba, bossa nova, sertanejo and MlPB are national styles.

Christianity is good for civilizations.

Tell that to the Albigensians.

OK. Do you have their email address?

Ethiopia reminds me of Haile Selassie and the funeral of President Kennedy, which Selassie attended dressed in what appeared to me to be a costume, a very impressive costume, and who stood out from the rest of the dignitaries standing next to the dour Charles De Gaulle, who was at least a foot taller than Selassie. Not sure why Selassie made such an impression that I remember it to this day. I suppose it was that costume, which made him look exotic, an exotic leader from an exotic place.

Gondor sounds like the place Samuel Johnson had in mind in The History of Rasselas. The young prince escapes his confines and find that nobody outside is lastingly happy.

When it comes to Gondar and its Portuguese roots, I am working on a documentary film: The Oranges of Prester John, about the little known story of the Ethiopian/Portuguese community in Ethiopia: the Burtukan.

The first Portuguese envoy to Ethiopia was Pero da Covilha, who arrived in 1496.

A larger embassy then reached the country in 1521 (and resulted in the exceptional A True Relation to the Lands of the Prester John of the Indies, by Francisco Alvarez).

In 1541, a 400 strong force led by Christopher da Gama, reaches Ethiopia, to bolster the armies of the Emperor against the forces of the Emir of Harar (themselves reinforced by Ottoman soldiers). The Horn of Africa's first war by proxy...

These Portuguese marry, and settle in Ethiopia, becoming an indigenous/foreign community, known as the 'Burtukan' (or Oranges), no doubt from the colour of their skin and the fact that they brought the sweet orange to the country (Burtukan- or Portugal - means orange in Amharic - but also in Albanian. Greek, Persian...etc. etc. to this day). They become artisans, and a praetorian guard to kings, and live in the country for a hundred years.

For more about the imperial splendours of Gondar, you can read Ruffin's fictionilization of the the true story of Charles-Jacques Poncet, a French doctor who came to Gondar to treat Emperor Iyasu the first.

You can read it in the original French (but there's also an English translation: The Abyssinian, and even... an Amharic version, that you can readily find in Addis Ababa: አበሻወ).

More about The Oranges of Prester John:


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