Timkat is a religious festival celebrated by the Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia, on 19th or 20th January in a leap year. Timkat means Baptism and is a celebration of the baptism of Jesus in river Jordan by John the Baptist, the celebration of Epiphany. The festival occurs all over Ethiopia thus you can enjoy it in any town you may be in. I had the honour to attend the festival while in Addis Ababa and what an emotional roller coaster it was.
During the festival, models of the Ark of the Covenant otherwise known as the Tabot, are removed from the Orthodox churches and carried to a designate water body by a select priest. A Tabot represents the Tablets given to Moses by God, that had the Ten Commandments inscribed on them. Every Orthodox church has one in safe keeping and it is not available for public viewing unless on select religious festivals/events. The Tabot is carried atop a priests head while covered in regal cloth and protected from the sun by large umbrellas. The priest is also offered “security” during this time via a human shield along his path.
In essence, the whole Festival takes place over a period of three days, with the second and third being the most popular. I got to participate in the festival on the second day. On this day, the Tabot officially leaves the Orthodox Church while atop the head of a priest. Along the way, the streets are covered with mini flags of yellow, red and green, the Ethiopian flag colours as well as various religious messages.
Members of various church groups were dressed in their official regalia while the other followers were mainly dressed in “Ethiopian inspired fashion”. What however was a constant, was that all the ladies had their hair covered by either a religious hat or shawl. We arrived quite early as we had been informed that at a specific time, public and private vehicles are denied access. I am very happy we did as I got to see all the activities from being at the front of the pack.
All around us where people celebrating in song, dance and beating of drums. The different church members marched along the streets as they sung and danced in celebration. Other smaller groups would also gather together to sing, dance, beat drums all the while also singing hymns. I was unsure which side to look, which group to stand by and watch and which group to join in as the options were many. Slowly, human traffic increased to thousands as more locals joined in, all while decked in their best outfits as indeed this was a great celebration day.
Along the way, one could see people of all ages ensuring everything was ready for the guest of honour, the Tabot. Men and women continuously swept the roads clean as “security” kept the congregants and visitors controlled. Then we saw a red carpet being rolled out on the center of the road and congregants sweeping it even though it already looked very clean. This was a clear indicator that the event was about to go a notch higher, we were getting to the climax. The congregants sang louder, danced more fervently and the beating of the drums got louder.
Select church groups then started walking on the carpet, leading a somewhat procession. The drum beats became louder, the songs a bit solemn and the congregants clapped their hands. Along the carpet, the security formed a human chain link to prevent people from moving closer to the carpet, signifying that the Tabot wasn’t too far off. We then saw church elders, priests and other church officials walking behind the church groups while decked in bright, attractive regalia. They were decked in robes mainly gold or red in colour, the men all had head gear and carried large open bright umbrellas.
The mood in the air became even more charged and people tried to get closer to the carpet. Eventually we saw the priest carrying the Tabot walking through the crowd. Finally, I got a view of VIP, the covered Tabot that lay atop the head of the priest.
It looked like a horizontal object that lay flat on the priests head, while covered with a red and yellow cloth that seemed to be made of velvet and had intricate embroidery on it.. The priest had a head gear and his red robe had artwork of Jesus on the cross as well as intricate detail that included the cross.The congregants bowed down in reverence, others kneeled down completely, people prayed, people shouted, people celebrated and I could see the awe in their eyes as tears rolled down the cheeks of others. The reverence of the people as they watch the priest carry the Tabot/ Ark is mind boggling and priceless.
The Tabot was then led to Jan Meda to await the continuation of the festival which would include prayers from the priests, the Tabot being dipped into the pool and thereafter being returned to the church on the next day.
*Disclaimer, I apologize to Ethiopia and all Orthodox for not dressing appropriately for the festival. I had been so intent on attending, I forgot to do my homework on the appropriate dressing which is women covering their heads with a white scarf and dressing in their best preferably long flowing outfits.
Timkat is indeed a festival I would advise all to attend. You will learn more about the Orthodox Christians, more about Ethiopians and lots about their culture. You will be overwhelmed by the music, the dance and the reverence of the people to the Tabot and the Timkat Festival as a whole.