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Architecture and Kingship: The Significance of Gondar-Style Architecture'1 Laverie Berry Library of Congress This discussion of Gondar-style architecture is an outgrowth of earlier studies of the Solomonic monarchy during the Gondar Period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.1 One cannot conduct such a study without confronting the purpose and significance of the architecture that is so distinctive to this era. Among the most relevant questions about Gondar-style architecture are these: Does it have any significance, and if so, what does it tell us about the monarchy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? Or are Gondar-style castles and churches merely curious structures without significance beyond keeping the elements at bay? My contention is that this genre of architecture has both meaning and purpose. I propose to raise and discuss three of the most important questions about Gondar-style architecture. Before doing so, however, I will quickly enumerate some of the most prominent features of this architecture as enshrined in perhaps their most famous manifestation—the castle of Fasiledes in Gondar: A.The basic materials employed were brown basalt and lime mortar, producing the mottled appearance so characteristic of Gondar-style architecture; B.Castles have a rectangular ground plan, domed angle towers that have a pronounced batter, roof terraces with battlements, square observation towers, decorated doors and windows in *This paper was presented at the 12th annual International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, Michigan State University, September 5-10, 1994.«Northeast African Studies (ISSN 0740-9133) Vol. 2, No. 3 (New Series) 1995, pp. 7-19 8 LaVerle Berry full arch, monumental external staircases, and string courses between stories. C. Churches are one-story structures and may be circular or rectangular ; the architecture affected only the exterior and did not alter the three-fold division of ritual space. Both castles and churches are surrounded by high walls, often with domed towers and monumental gateways. Information on the origins and significance of these structures is quite limited. It consists of four basic types: first, the royal chronicles of the period, particularly the long, detailed chronicles as opposed to the short or abbreviated annals; second, the oral and written traditions associated with various castles and churches, some of which I collected during fieldwork in the early 1970s; third, references in the accounts of various travelers; and fourth, my personal observations and comparisons made during visits to the Lake Tana region in 1972-73, 1992, and 1993. There are three questions I wish to raise and to discuss on the basis of the scanty evidence we have about these buildings: (l) What are the origins of Gondar-style architecture? (2) What explains the geographic locale of these structures? (3) What is the significance of Gondar-style architecture? Let us begin with the question of origins. At the outset, a fundamental point needs to be made. Gondar-style architecture was introduced from outside Ethiopia. It has no antecedent in northern Ethiopian architectural traditions that stretch back to Lalibella and Axum. It appears full-blown in the mid-sixteenth century and lasts until the mideighteenth , when it disappears as suddenly as it had appeared two centuries earlier. No intermediate stages of development or degeneration are known, and the style, once introduced, remained essentially unchanged from beginning to end.2 On the basis of presently known Ethiopian sources, the question of origins cannot be answered.3 Only a comparative study of sixteenth century architecture is likely to yield clues to the architecture's origins, and it is highly unlikely that we will ever know by what agent or agents it was initially introduced, although some intelligent suggestions can be made. As far as the second question is concerned—why are Gondar-style structures located where they are?—commerce and trade routes seem Architecture and Kingship 9 to be the determining factors. The real question here is: Why did Sertse Dingil (r. 1563-97) leave Shewa, which had been the center of the kingdom for centuries, and move to the Lake Tana basin in the 1570s? And further, why did all of his successors remain there for the next three centuries? The answer appears to lie in the quest for a source of reliable...


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