Timkat Festival Ethiopia

| February 4, 2011

Timkat, meaning Epiphany, is one of Ethiopia’s most renowned and colourful festivals and is celebrated in towns and villages across the country. Katie Parsons, PR Executive at Cox & Kings joined the festivities in Addis Ababa and explains the two-day festival, which commemorates the Baptism of Jesus and provides a rare glimpse into a tradition that dates back over 1000 years.

timkat banner

Ketera, the day before Timkat, takes place on Tir 10 (January 18) every year. Ethiopians dressed in their finest white shawls attend an early afternoon mass service in their local church. Priests and deacons wear elaborate ceremonial robes and are shaded by magnificently colourful and sequinned umbrellas. The courtyards and pavements are covered in grass so the procession of the Ark of the Covenant has a clean and decorated path to follow. In larger towns, there is a dedicated baptismal pool for the festival, but in smaller villages and communities any pool of water or stream can be used.

After the mass, the congregation outside the church sees the revered replica of the Ark of the Covenant, the Tabot, for the first time. It is carried on the head of one of the priests and is covered by layers of rich cloth, supposedly to protect it from the gaze of the impious. Priests perform chants and liturgical dances, whilst swinging sistras (silver religious bells) and bronze incense burners. On its sighting, the women begin ululating, a piercing and prolonged cry of joy, which is repeated throughout the festival’s entirety.

The Tabot leaves the church in a procession with other priests, choirs and congregation to the continued sounds of the chanting and ululations and wafting incense.

Depending on the location of each church in the city, a procession can take two or three hours to arrive at the Jal Meda (a large field where the central festival in Addis takes place). The atmosphere has changed to a more lively and celebratory mood, and the choirs preceding each Tabot all sing and dance to signal their arrival.

In the late afternoon, once all of the Tabots have gathered on the Jal Meda, the Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church performs a blessing and the liturgical chants continue. The Tabots spend the night in ceremonial tents close by and the priests pray throughout the night. Crowds also stay overnight on the field, talking and praying.

By dawn, thousands of worshippers reassemble around the bathing pool in the centre of the Jal Meda for the focal point of the festival. After a mass, the Patriarch dips his cross in the water to bless it and sprays the nearby crowds to symbolise their rebaptism. At other festival sites, the most important priest present performs the blessing. At the Jal Meda, there were between 80,000 and 100,000 gathered, all with the same aim of being doused in Holy water. With such high numbers it is impossible for the priest to cover everyone, so younger priests use hose pipes connected to the blessed pool to spray those further away. The shrill ululations are at almost deafening levels. Empty plastic bottles are thrown into the central baptismal area in desperation that some of the water will be collected for them.

Late morning, the crowds begin to disperse and the Tabots start returning back to their churches with the worshippers in a jubilant and lively procession.

Irrespective of any religious beliefs, the two days spent at the Timkat festival were fascinating. I was astonished by the sense of peace and serenity throughout the two-day event and it was a real privilege to have been able to witness such a historic and important event in the Ethiopian Orthodox church.

View our group tour to Ethiopia.

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