Timkat Festival, Ethiopia

The ornate umbrellas used to protect the priests from the sun during Timkat were suddenly turned upside down and passed over the crowd’s heads. It took me a moment to realise that these were the collection plates.
So few people in the world have heard of Timkat and yet it is one of the most spectacular religious festivals in the world. It is also unique to Ethiopia, where the orthodox Christian festival of Epiphany is celebrated on 19 January, or 20 January during leap years. Timkat, which translates as ‘baptism’, celebrates the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. Ethiopians embrace this annually with a mass baptism at different waterfronts or sacred pools around the country, the top spots being Lalibela, Gondar, and Addis Ababa.

What happens at the Timkat festival?

Most Ethiopians wear the traditional white clothes during the festival, draped with a traditional netela, or shawl, for the ceremony, and gather at the waterfront at dawn to watch the water be blessed by the priest, be sprinkled with it and then, in some cases, submerge themselves in it. Timkat is an aesthetically beautiful event to witness, a very spiritual one to take part in and an ancient tradition that is an honour to share.

Timkat is both a public and private affair. Although it is a massive community gathering and expression of spiritual commitment, it is also a rite of passage for young Ethiopian men who are choosing the path of priesthood. In many cases, this is the culmination of many years of spiritual learning and dedication, with trainee priests having to prove to the elders that they are worthy of their ordination right up until the last minute. This journey is, therefore, a very private spiritual path where each trainee priest has learned the scriptures off by heart. They have had to beg for all their food as learning to accept charity is part of this spiritual development. And then finally, during Timkat, their own baptism into the Ethiopian Orthodox church takes place.

Where to see Timkat

Lalibela is Ethiopia’s ‘cathedral’ for ordination as well as being Ethiopia’s most celebrated tourism and Timkat site. This spiritual hub is home to 11 churches hewn into the rock during the 13th century by King Lalibela, who had a vision of the Holy City of Jerusalem. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, during Timkat you will see that Lalibela is very much a living cultural site, because one in 10 of its 10,000 residents are priests. Procession, pilgrimage and prayer are what Lalibela is all about, not only during Timkat but all year round. You can also join the celebrations in other cities, including Addis Ababa, as well as Gondar and Mekelle, in northern Ethiopia.

Timkat & the Ark of the Covenant

The Ark of the Covenant, which plays a central role during Timkat, is a golden wooden chest which contains two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. In Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, churches treasure replicas of this sacred artefact as well as those of the tablets, which are called tabots. These precious replicas are protected by priests throughout the year and brought out during Timkat. One of the aims of pilgrims is to get close to the tabot, because just being in proximity of it means that you are getting closer to God. During the Timkat ceremony, priests carry the tabots on their heads down to the waterfront. The tabots are always covered in an ornate fabric, though, because they are considered too sacred to be even gazed upon by mere mortals.

The priests wear ceremonial robes during Timkat and are protected by colourful, embroidered umbrellas, as they are followed in a procession by thousands of pilgrims, singing, drumming, clapping and dancing. A more reverential moment follows, when the priest arrives at the waterfront or sacred lake, delivers prayers, blesses the water with his golden cross and then sprinkles the crowd with it. At this point the eruption of mass joy occurs once more, and kids traditionally jump into the water for fully immersive fun. Festivities continue for another day for many people, fuelled by a fair amount of local beer (tela) as well as dancing to traditional drums (kabero) to keep the energy going.

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Timkat Festival in Ethiopia vacation

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How to take part in Timkat

A little bit like Day of the Dead in Mexico or Holi in India, Timkat has become a big attraction for visitors to Ethiopia. Many small group tours include Timkat into their itineraries, and if you book a tailor made trip, you can always time it with Timkat but go off on other adventures before and after. Join in the Timkat celebrations in Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region in the north, to enjoy the feasts and fanfares of this spectacular community event. There is even a cycling race in the city as part of it, so if you can find a way of signing up to that you are really going to be immersing yourself into things.
If you can time your trip to get to Lalibela for the big day(s) you will have hit the cultural jackpot. You will need to get your tour operator to book hotel accommodation well in advance though. In Addis Ababa, Timkat is an impressive three day festival: The Eve of Timket on 18 January is called Ketera and this is when the party begins, with music and people starting to fill the streets, which are adorned with Ethiopian flags and on 19 January, the procession begins with pilgrims following the priests to Jan Meda to be blessed by the holy water. Gondar, in the north, is also a stunning spot to take in Timkat, with its 17th century Royal Enclosure of churches, palaces and castles, as well as the all important ceremonial bath.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Jean Rebiffé] [Intro: gill_penney] [What happens at the festival: gill_penney] [How to take part: Jean Rebiffé]