The pre-dawn world is not a place I visit willingly – and yet I found myself outside a windswept Ethiopian church at 4am on a Sunday, moved to tears by one of the most remarkable experiences of my life.
My visit – part of Ethiopia’s historic trail – coincided with the Orthodox Christian festival of Fasika, which falls just after our Easter. At the end of two months of strict fasting, worshippers attend a church service on Easter eve that lasts throughout the night, ending as late as 4am, when they burst – carnival like – out of the church doors to dance, eat, drink and celebrate the risen Christ.
I had arrived in Lalibela – a town in northern Ethiopia clustered around 11 majestic, rose-gold churches that are carved into the dusty rocks and dug into the ground by hand – two days earlier. As we approached the hilltop town by car, we passed ever-growing crowds of men, women and children pouring in from the bone-dry hills and tackling the long, dusty road north. In the lead-up to any religious festival, pilgrims sleep on plastic sheets near the town and the normally desert-like hills were blurred with life.
Ethiopia throbs with religious fervour throughout the year. On Sundays in Lalibela, Axum and Bahir Dar, foreign visitors are rendered all but invisible by the thousand-strong crowd of monks and nuns, hermits and worshippers, children and grandmothers – all of whom are wrapped in white and fervently kiss their crosses and the feet of the orange-clad priests as they enter the holy walls of the many churches.
This is a society with a more profound spiritual belief than anywhere else I have visited – one where worship is woven into every aspect of life. But it is during Orthodox festivals when Ethiopian daily prayers bloom into multicoloured celebrations.
As the pilgrims left church to celebrate Fasika on that chilly Sunday morning, the priests cut a path between them, wearing candy-coloured robes and carrying spectacular parasols that wouldn’t have been out of place in a West End show. Red carpets were rolled out in front, so their feet never touched the ground as they progressed, while church choirs burst into song as they passed. All around were their followers, alternately singing and ululating, praying or reading their bibles, some holding aloft candles and coils of incense.
Over the weekend, I was often alone among the worshippers – a jeans-stained dot in this sea of pilgrims in their pristine white shawls. I sat on the ground and watched the baptism of three babies, and later pressed myself against the sunken walls as hundreds of pilgrims marched past carrying a vast wooden cross.
And standing there at dawn on Easter Sunday, I felt lucky to be immersed in a celebration untouched by the last two centuries – one where a recognisable brand of Christianity suddenly felt intoxicatingly foreign. Ethiopia’s landscape may be beautiful and its food delicious, but many months later, it is these haunting religious celebrations that dominate my memories of the country.
Throughout the year there are churches feting saints’ days – and every Sunday in Ethiopia has a festival-like atmosphere – but if you want to time your visit to coincide with one of the great Orthodox Christian celebrations, then January is your month.
Just after our New Year, is the Orthodox equivalent of Christmas – Gena. It is celebrated everywhere but is particularly spectacular in Lalibela. Gena is preceded by 43 days of fasting through Tsome Gahad (or Advent) and culminates in a grand church service, and a procession of dancers. In Lalibela (a short flight north from Addis Ababa) the celebration begins at the world-famous Church of St George, which is sunk into the ground in the shape of a Greek Orthodox cross. Perch under a thorn tree and watch the white-robed pilgrims drift around the four columns while priests pray, light candles and bless the arriving worshippers. After that they move to Biete Medhane Alem, the largest monolithic church in the world, where the haunting service takes place.
Timkat, Bahir Dar
Around 18 January is Timkat – the celebration of Jesus’ baptism. One of the most extraordinary places to watch it in is the town of Bahir Dar, which is set on the banks of Lake Tana, where the Ark of the Covenant is believed to have been kept for many years. On the foothills of the Simien mountains and a short flight from Addis Ababa or Lalibela, the lake itself is mesmerising – ancient dhows drift past 14th-century monasteries and angry hippos rear their heads out of the glassy water. And during Timkat, priests parade a replica of the Ark (known as the Tabot) around town, while choirs sing, chant and ululate behind them, accompanied by church drums. The Tabot is then placed in a white tent by the shores of Lake Tana, where worshippers submerge themselves in holy water in a re-enactment of the baptism. Afterwards, the Tabot is taken back to the church and street feasts pop up around the city.
For the past two months, worshippers have eaten only vegetables, and only at certain hours of the afternoon. So, it is with great joy and some relief that the Christian half of the country welcomes Easter Sunday, when they can feast on meat, injera (fermented bread) and tej (local honey beer). My Fasika celebrations in Lalibela were extraordinary, but on the banks of Lake Tana, near Gondar – further on from Bahir Dar, where sub- Saharan Africa and medieval churches meld together – it is equally spectacular. Thousands of pilgrims line the shore, clutching candles and carrying heavy wooden crosses. While in the churches and monasteries that sit on jewel-like islands in the lake, pilgrims gather to sing, pray, dance and, most importantly, eat.
Meskel, Addis Ababa
Vast, crowded and polluted, Addis Ababa – while fascinating – can be a difficult city to get to grips with. But if you’re there in September for the Meskel celebrations, the capital’s atmosphere changes and becomes gentler and more welcoming. The Meskel is a festival that celebrates Queen Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, who lived in the 4th century and who found the true cross, thanks to a dream telling her to light a bonfire that would later reveal its whereabouts. Today the bonfire (called a demera) is erected in Meskel Square in central Addis Ababa each September and is topped by daisies in the form of a cross. Priests circle the bonfire, singing before it is lit, while pilgrims from around the country gather to celebrate.
Hidar Tsion, Axum
According to every Ethiopian you’ll meet, the historic town of Axum in the far north of the country is where the Ark of the Covenant is buried. This belief is one of the reasons why Ethiopia is so fervently religious – but the only slight catch is that nobody is actually allowed to see it. Happily, they are allowed to celebrate it. And in Saint Mary of Zion Church – the church where the Ark is allegedly kept – pilgrims from all over the world gather on 30 November, draped in snow-white shawls and bearing wishes and prayers that supposedly come true when made at the resting place of the Ark. Priests lead the service by singing and playing on the drums, while female worshippers respond with a chorus of ululations throughout the day. And in a country where women are banned from a frustrating number of churches and monasteries, it is refreshing to attend a celebration where they are central to the festivities.
Recommended C&K tour: Ethiopian Odyssey 14 Days & 11 Nights
Explore the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and Tigray, and spend time immersed in the spectacular scenery of the Simien mountains. Several departures of this tour have been scheduled to coincide with the festivals of Timkat, Meskel and Hidar Tsion.
Alternatively, if you are interested in private travel, please either call one of our specialist travel consultants or complete our tailor-made request form and one of our experts will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.