Gondar was the capital of Ethiopia from the rise of Fasilades to the fall of Tewodros (1855-68) which is reflected in the many castles and palaces in the city.The city’s main imperial precinct, known as the Royal Enclosure, covers an area of 7.7 hectares and contains five castles, raised walkways and connecting tunnels surrounded by high stone
walls.The oldest of these is the Castle of Fasilades. Built of stone in the mid-17th century it reflects a number of influences, Axumite, Portuguese and Indian. The upper storey offers panoramic views and Lake Tana is visible on a clear day. The castle has been renovated recently. Fasilades grandson, Lyasu the great, built his own castle and decorated it with ivory, gold and precious stones but an earthquake in the early 19th caused severe damage.
The palace of Ras Beit, was built in the 18th century as a private residence of the famous king maker, Ras Mikael Sehul and has been in continuous occupation ever since.Bath of Fasilades is a sunken pool still used for the Timkat Festival in January.
Gondar traditionally was divided into several neighborhoods or quarters: Addis Alem, where the Muslim inhabitants dwelled; Kayla Meda, where the adherents of Beta Israel lived; Abun Bet, centered on the residence of the Abuna, or nominal head of the Ethiopian Church; and Qagn Bet, home to the nobility. Gondar is also a noted center of ecclesiastical learning of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, and known for having 44 churches – for many years more than any other settlement in Ethiopia. Gondar and its surrounding countryside constitute the homeland of most Ethiopian Jews.
The modern city of Gondar is popular as a tourist destination for its many picturesque ruins in Fasil Ghebbi (the Royal Enclosure), from which the emperors once reigned. The most famous buildings in the city lie in the Royal Enclosure, which include Fasilides’ castle, Iyasu’s palace, Dawit’s Hall, a banqueting hall, stables, Empress Mentewab’s castle, a chancellery, library and three churches. Near the city lie Fasilides’ Bath, home to an annual ceremony where it is blessed and then opened for bathing; the Qusquam complex, built by Empress Mentewab; the eighteenth century Ras Mikael Sehul’s Palace and the Debre Berhan Selassie Church.
Downtown Gondar shows the influence of the Italian occupation of the late 1930s. The main piazza features shops, a cinema, and other public buildings in a simplified Italian Moderne style still distinctively of the period despite later changes and, frequently, neglect. Villas and flats in the nearby quarter that once housed occupation officials and colonists are also of interest.
The town is home to the University of Gondar, which includes Ethiopia’s main faculty of medicine.