Timkat, Ethiopia

Of all the various religious festivals such as Ledet or Genna (Christmas), Meskel (Finding the True Cross), Fasika (Easter), among many others, Timkat (Epiphany) is the biggest and most colorful religious festival in Ethiopia. 

Timkat is a 3-day ceremony – actually a 2-day event – which is celebrated on the 19th of January (January 11th on the Ethiopian Calendar) every year; while celebration falls on the 20th in a leap year. Conducted with great pomp and pageantry, the festival commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ at the River Jordan by John the Baptist.

Celebration starts on the 18th, the eve of Timkat known as Ketera, with the local priests bringing out the tabot (a replica of the Ark of Covenant) from different churches. The tabot is beautifully wrapped in rich silk cloth and carried by the priest on his head in a procession with a choir and drummers, and taken to a place near a water pool. It is kept in a in a white tent all night, while the choir sing hymns and the priests pray, and mass takes places at 02:00 in the morning with candlelight. 

As the dawn starts to break, the people would have gathered at the area to attend the prayers. As soon as that gets done with, a senior priest blesses the water and sprinkles it on the congregation, while the more ardent worshippers jump into the pool to renew their vows. By afternoon, all tabots, except the tabot from St. Michael Church, are returned back to their churches in a procession with the priests and young people animated and leaping like King David in the Bible. 

The people eventually disperse into the villages to continue the celebrations. A special bread called ambasha in Amharic is baked, while sheep are slaughtered and prepared for the feast. A traditional beer, tella brewed various grains like teff and maize, and tej, a honey wine are served around during the celebration. 

The day following day, the 20th is dedicated to the Feast of St. Michael. Ethiopia’s most popular saint is Michael the archangel, and it is on this day that the tabot of St. Michael Church is returned accompanied with the same processional singing, dancing and general excitement.

Addis Ababa, Gondar and Lalibela are probably the best places to witness Timkat. In Gondar, the commemorative baptism takes place at the Bath of Fasilides; while in Addis Ababa, the people gather at the Jan Meda field, where they pitch their tents on the eve, armed with their oil lamps while enjoying a night picnic. 

*All images sourced online from Flickr.

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