Kuskuam Church

Friday, January 02, 2015
Gonder, Amhara, Ethiopia
Checked back into Fasil Lodge for the night and Mentewab's Palace was the last thing to see in Gondar, just 3km to the west. Located behind Kuskuam Church, Mentewab's Palace was built by Empress Mentewab after 1730.

Who was Mentewab? Mentewab was Empress of Ethiopia, wife of Emperor Bakaffa and a major political figure during the reigns of her son, Emperor Iyasu and her grandson Iyoas I. Empress Mentewab commissioned the construction of several magnificent buildings in Gondar, most notably, Mentewab's Castle as well as a banqueting hall at Fasil Ghebbi and several buildings at the Kuskuam or Qusquam enclosure, so named after the place in Egypt where Joseph, Mary and Jesus had lived after fleeing from Herod's massacre. Here she built a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the Qusquam Mariam Church, and a palace for herself, Mentewab's Palace at Kuskuam.

After the death of Emperor Bakaffa, Mentewab had herself crowned as co-ruler to while her son was underage, and continuing playing an important role during the reign of Eyasu II, and after his murder, during the reign of his son Eyoas I. She commissioned the construction of the KusKuam St. Mary Church in the hills. Built inside an embattled curtain wall with turrets and gates, similar to but smaller than the Royal Enclosure, Fasil Ghebbi. Within its premises, she had herself her three-storied Mentewab's Palace built as her retreat from the daily affairs at the royal center of power.

The Banquet Hall which must be at least 10 metres high became quite famous as she entertained high guests at her retreat.

The palace also had a room with a sunken bath, still present today.

Mentewab's Palace and the Mariam Church were set fire to by the Mahdists from Sudan during their sacking of Gondar in 1888. Only the walls of the Banquet Hall of the Palace remain largely intact. The fire revealed the cellar of the building after the collapse of the wooden floor.

An embattlement curtain wall with turrets and gates protected Kuskuam from raiders, until Sudanese invaders put the place to ashes.

Her palace and several nearby buildings were damaged by the British bombing during WWII.

The Italian occupiers during the 1936-1941 Ethio-Italian war started the reconstruction of the church and completed by Emperor Haile Selassie.

After the murder of her grandson, Mentewab retired mostly from political life but she would live to see two more successors the throne.

Mentewab's Palace became her favorite residence. She buried her son, Emperor Iyasu and her grandson Iyoas I in the Mariam Qusquam Church after their murders, after which she refused to return to Mentewab's Castle at Fasil Ghebbi, staying in her place the remaining years of her life.

Although much of it has fallen to ruins, one can still see different carved crosses above windows. Figures include St Samuel, a lion and the same Gonderian crosses on her palace in the Royal Enclosure as well as the general plan of most buildings. Probably the chapel here had paintings as elaborate and colourful as the ones in Debre Birhan Selassie church.

As menstruating women were forbidden to enter a churches, Mentewab had a circular "Se'el Bet" Chapel built with Icons her favorite saints where she would pray when menstruating. There are twelve alcoves, which the queen would visit every hour with the praying priest standing outside swinging incense. Inside these ruins were a couple of students studying economics. It hasn't changed: Macro economics, micro economics, supply and demand, price elasticity …

The star attraction in the adjacent small museum under one of the egg-shaped towers, is a small glass-fronted coffin with the remains of the empress, her son Emperor Iyasu II and her grandson Iyo’as, the last emperor of Gonder. I hope that one day they can better preserve the century old books and other historical pieces than how they are placed in a glass cabinet.

All the time we were the only ones there while exploring the ruins. It was so peaceful here with the juniper and olive trees and even being so close to the centre of town, it was away from the hustle and bustle of Gondar. The view from this hill over Gondar is splendid with Fasilades Castle in the distance. I could just imagine the royals who lived here having a great view from their well-situated palaces over the surrounding landscape.






We saw on the way up to and next to Kuskuam Church were these tiny doll-sized mud-and-stick huts. After leaving we walked down and found that they housed religious students while training to become monks or priests. Depending on their ability, some could be here for up to 10 + years learning. Several shared a tiny hut. They had to scavenger the local villages for leftover food. Teaching took place outdoor sitting on the stone seats. I hope that one day the planned building on the billboard outside does happen.

Dinner was roasted chicken 109 birr / NZ$7.30 / US$5.40 plus a bottle of St George beer 24 birr / NZ$1.60 / US$1.20.

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