Gondar, arguably Ethiopia’s most precious historic city, hosts a significant number of ancient pieces of Ethiopian architecture which demonstrate a great deal of spiritual and architectural brilliance alike. Among them, the baptismal bath built by king Fasiledes, the city’s founder, stands out. While the majority of the buildings and ruins found in the city are either churches or castles and palaces, this one is actually a huge water pool where the religious ceremony Gondar is most famous for, Epiphany, is celebrated.
Although there are a number of speculations on the reason behind the pool’s construction, two theories dominate.
The first theory, most popular locally and internationally alike, presents the pool as merely one of the emperor’s royal swimming pools where he spent the city’s boiling summers. This theory, though, falls short in explaining why the emperor needed to build such a huge pool miles away from his palace while he had already got one inside. The second theory, though not as popular, offers a more colorful story.
In 1626, king Sussinious, Fasiledes’s father, replaced Orthodox Christianity and inaugurated Catholicism as the state religion of the empire. His subjects were forced to abandon the Orthodox faith and adopt Catholic Christianity; those who refused were subjected to harsh persecution or even worse, execution.
Enraged by these actions, subjects of the EOTC, especially monks, flooded the palace gates in hundreds each day seeking to condemn the emperor for his actions and make him restore the Orthodox faith. The palace guards were ordered to behead any individual daring to approach the gates. Hundreds of monks and ordinary Orthodox subjects were slaughtered each day, yet the outrage showed no sign of decline.
After a tragic bloodshed that saw the streets of Gondar submerged in red torrent, king Sussinious became fatally ill and unable to govern his empire any more. He was forced to hand over the throne to his son Fasiledes who eventually restored the Orthodox faith and ended years of dreadfulness. But, thousands who had converted to Catholicism, seeking to escape persecution, had to be re-baptized.
That is when the idea of putting together a huge pool was envisaged. “Since it was not possible to baptize each individual one by one,” told me a priest serving there, “Fasiledes constructed a huge pool that would mass the holy water and people were to be baptized en masses.”
The compound that encloses the pool is surrounded by brickworks that display typical Gondarian architecture, built with chunks of stone fixed together by a sticky mixture of egg-yolk and lime. A rectangular parade of giant trees, planted contemporary to the pools construction, encircles the compound. Their roots can be seen crawling along the aging walls deep into the stony ground.
The architectural structure of the pool is no different from the walls that enclose it, with a grid of properly shaped rocks spanning its width, fastened together with what was the Gonderian version of cement, an Egg-Lime mixture. About 400 years from now, Ethiopians had invented a local building material that could rival cement, which was yet to be discovered by the rest of the world.
In the upper center of the pool is seen erected another building that exhibits classic Gonderian structural design. It serves as a temporary temple during the festivities of Epiphany, where the arks from the churches all around the city would arrive at the eve and spend the next two to three days. A bridge spanning across a quarter of the pool links the tower with the compound.
Visiting a place that exhibits such an astonishing blend of thrilling history and astounding architectural brilliance is indeed a magical experience, but even more magical is seeing it in live service during the festivities of the Epiphany.
Hence, Gondar invites anyone local and foreigner to witness the unforgettable wonderful experience of celebrating Epiphany at a place that shines with the glitters of brilliant history.
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Article By: Kaleab Ayenew