The community at Mequat Mariam parade the Tabot out at TImkat
So tonight 18th January, is the eve of Timkat. Processions made there way across towns in urban areas and over the fields in the countryside, to a place where in the morning the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan river is commemorated. Water will be blessed and the multitudes will be splashed with the holy water and try to take some home with them in bottles. Following this ceremony the tabots (with the exception of Mikael tabots) will be processed back to their church with similar joy, noise, colour and reverence to that with which they were processed today.
Why is Timkat called “Epiphany”, and hey, what is Epiphany? Well it is a Greek word meaning manifestation or appearance, and it celebrates the events in Christ’s life that showed him to be the son of
Priests at Mequat Mariam head to the water blessing
God. In the early church (before Rome got into it) this was the major feast in the church after Easter. In Epiphany was encapsulated all the major events that manifested Christ’s Godhood to man: his birth (Nativity) , the visit of the Magi, the turning watering wine at the wedding in Cana, and his baptism in the Jordan river. With the appearance of Christmas in the developing church as a new festival, his nativity was taken out of Epiphany.
So where should you go to see it. In Addis Ababa, head for your nearest place where tabots have congregated, and try to get there quite early (8am). There will be big crowds near the major places such as Jan Meda, and beware of pickpockets! In the countryside similarly head for the tabots resting place early in the morning. Local people
Worshippers jump into the Fasilides baths
will tell you when.
In Gondar you will need to seek out a place early in the morning at Fasilidas’ baths. It becomes extremely crowded. Your guide will advise you. The moment of the joyful splashing is the high point. In Gondar youngsters jump into the pool, in Addis the clergy spray the crowd from the water in the pool in the midst of the field. In parishes up and down the country water is splashed from the blessed pool, spring or river in a joyous celebration. Then you can follow the processions.
Flags put up on the streets of Addis in preparation for the Timkat processions on 18th – 20th Jan
Preparations are underway for one festival that seems to encapsulate Ethiopia’s unique place in the world: it is Timkat – or ‘Baptism’. It is frequently referred to as Epiphany, which undersells what is a very special and Ethiopian day. In fact it is really spread over 2 or 3 days. And it start tomorrow- Wed 18th Jan (Ter 10).
The programme: In Addis the Tabot will leave the churches at around 2pm with a big procession, singing of hymns and chants, drumming, horns being blown and dancing to the chants. Icons are processed and most especially the tabots wrapped in brocaded cloth carried on the heads of the high priests under umbrellas. The procession will makes its way over several hours to the special resting point for the tabots. In north eastern Addis Ababa this is Jan Meda (
A Tabot being paraded for Timkat
the Royal horse racing fields). At Jan Meda about a dozen tabots spend the night with tents for shelter, and priests and devoted followers. The fields become the centre of the festival for the evening and next day, and for St Mikael Tabots the next day too. Tens of thousands of people will gather at the fields in the evening, hundreds sell refreshments and nicknacks. The roads around are packed solid.
During the processions roads are closed across the city (and the country) and no cars can pass. Houses beside the route the tabots pass are blessed. Young lads lay down carpets on the road infant off the taboo. They rapidly rolls them up behind and run them round to the front again, extreme hard work and a devotion that illustrates how deep seated are the beliefs and culture of the Orthodox church even in the capital city.
Where to see it? Head to your nearest Orthodox church, and plan to be there by 2pm. Then you can join in the procession to the fields. Don’t be worried by the crowds, everyone is joyful and will be happy to see you, but do show respect for the priests and the Tabots, dress appropriately (women should cover heads and neither men nor women should wear short clothing – if you have traditional white cotton clothes all the better). At the convergence points of the tabots thee could be pick pockets at work so be careful of possessions and do not carry unnecessary valuables.
See tomorrow for details of the rest of Timkat! Enjoy!
The community at Mequat Mariam parade the Tabot out at Timkat
If you are still unsure what to do next week over Timkat why not come and celebrate with one of the villages on a Tesfa trek.
Timkat is probably the most colourful festival in Ethiopia. Its a magical celebration linked to one of the oldest festival in the Christian – Epiphany. But in the Eastern (Orthodox) churches – Epiphany celebrated the baptism of Christ not the visit of the Magi (as in the western Church). In fact the word Timkat means ‘baptism’. Epiphany itself refers to the manifestation of Christ’s divinity, and in the original church it celebrated the various points in Christ’s life where his divinity was shown: his nativity (this was before Christmas was celebrated), the visit of the Magi, Christ’s miracles (especially at the wedding in Cana), and his baptism in the Jordan river.
The village at Wajela celebrate Timkat with dancing and singing
Timkat in Ethiopia is effectively a 3 day event although only the second day is the holiday and is Timkat. The celebrations start on the eve which this year is 19th January (Ter 10 in the Ethiopian calendar). The Tabots are paraded with colour, dance and singing out of their church compounds and off on a route to what is normally an attractive place if possible by a water source. On arrival the tabot is set up with a tent and the church community will stay with the tabot, some for the night. On the day of Timkat there is a mass before the water source is blessed and with wonderful joy the water is splashed on the onlookers and as much as possible some is collected to be taken home as a holy water.
After this celebration the tabots are taken back to their church with renewed joy and celebration, passing by a different route to bless those whose farms or houses it passes. All tabots except for Mikael tabots, who spend another day camping out as Ter 12 is St Michaels day (Mikael) and interestingly commemorates the wedding in Cana – (Cana Ze Galila). The Mikael day is also very big and the processions are bigger as many of those who attended the previous two days celebrations now come together for Mikael. In some places horses, decorated in colourful pompoms have horse races while the procession goes on.
There is no better day to feel the religious fervour and the deeply held beliefs in the Ethiopian Orthodox church. Whether you witness this in the streets of Addis or in the remote mountains on a Tesfa Trek you will be struck by the passion it arouses in the followers of the church and by the feeling that this is biblical, out of the old testament harking back to King David’s processing of the Ark of Covenant in Jerusalem.
This year, on Timkat eve, I watched the Tabot from my local church in Addis Ababa as it was paraded the 4 kilometres from the church – Yesus – behind the French Embassy, to the Jan Meda – the old Imperial racing fields. It was a colourful and joyful procession, with everyone very happy to see us enjoying their pageant.
The Tabot’s nearest equivalent is the tabernacle and is a replica of the tablets of stone, and is carried shrouded in brocaded cloth on the head of a senior priest underneath a colourfully decorated umbrella. It forms the central part of the parade, alongside icons and other beautifully dressed priests also with more colourful umbrellas. The priests are led by deacons all dressed in white playing the wonderful big drums, and choir groups from the church singing the Tabot down the hill. Others lay out a red carpet before the Tabot, a sign of the importance attached to theTabot. As it passes people prostrate themselves before the tabot kissing the ground.
Timkat is the festival which celebrates the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River, and is one of Ethiopia’s most important religious festivals. The word Timkat means baptism, but it is often confusingly translated as Ethiopian Epiphany. For more information on this see the page on festivals on our website.
Jan Meda becomes the centre of Addis Ababa over the Timkat holiday as more than a dozen Tabots converge on the walled field to spend the night there. On Timkat morning mass is said and then the blessed holy water in the baths at the centre of the filed are sprayed on the ecstatic congregation that is gathered around. Many also seek to fill bottles with this holy water to cure any number of ailments.
Then the Tabots are paraded back up to their churches again accompanied by the parishioners. Only one Tabot remains for a second night – that of Mikael, whose annual saints day is the following day – a day that also celebrates the wedding at Canaa – Kanna Zegelila in the Ethiopian Church. The Mikael Tabots are then paraded back up on their special saint’s day with even larger crowds of followers.
It is a joyful and happy three days, and one I would urge people to see. Tourists flock to the traditional historical centres: Lalibela, Gondar and Axum, resulting in overcrowding, shortage of rooms, high prices etc, but it is a wonderful sight in Addis Ababa, or at the Tesfa community sites sharing the day with the local villagers.