At the heart of present-day Gondar, just north of Lake Tana, sits the Royal Enclosure with its five castles built by a succession of Ethiopian kings beginning in the early 17th century. Having survived several wars, including air raids during World War Two, the castles are a testament to the resilience of this once mighty African Empire. In 1632, King Fasilidas proclaimed that Gondar, a previously obscure village, would be the site of the Empire's new capital and the population swelled to over 60,000. For the next 250 years, the Kings of Ethiopia ruled from Gondar's castles.
In addition to bringing stability to the Empire, King Fasilidas also reestablished the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as the official state religion (after his father's short turn with Catholicism.) And near the Royal Enclosure is a small church with some of the finest examples of art of the Orthodox Church. The ceiling of Debre Birhan Selassie, with its 80 cherubic angels, and the saints and demons who line its walls are some of the most iconic images of Ethiopia.
South of Gondar, is Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia and the source of the Blue Nile. Ancient, but still used, monasteries dot the lake's many islands while hippos and traders paddling their papyrus boats ply its waters. This region was once home to the Felasha, or Ethiopian Jews, and although most emigrated to Israel in the late 20th century, their influence is still felt in the symbols, customs, and rituals of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.