Priest holding traditional taper
Yesterday (9th April) was Palm Sunday or Hosanna – the Sunday before Easter. It is a very special day in the Orthodox church commemorating Jesus’s march into Jerusalem on a donkey with Palm fonds laid before him. It is marked with palms (worn by many worshippers on hands or head), processions and special services in the church.
Ethiopia is now in the last week of Great Lenten fast or Hudadi, this last week of Hudadi is commonly known as Holy Week, or the “Week of Pains” or the Himamat and is the strictest part of Lent. During Himamat no absolution is given, and during this week the fast becomes yet more rigorous. For some strict worshippers, having broken the fast after mass on Thursday they will not eat any food nor drink even a drop of water until Easter morning. So they totally abstain for all of Good Friday (or Sekelet) and Saturday, breaking this fast after the church service that goes through the night on Saturday, finishing at around 3am on Sunday morning. These three days are known as “Qanona”. The priests neither eat nor drink but remain in the churches singing and praying incessantly.
No other major religion has such penitential fasting. For the strict observers of the fast, the 55 days of Lent are very tough on the body. Fasting in Ethiopia not only means a vegan diet but also means many hours of no food or drink. Each fasting day the observer will not eat of drink anything from the time they wake up until after the mass in the middle of the day is finished in church for many that means 3-4pm. Two simple meals may then follow, a late ‘lunch’ or more properly ‘break-fast’, and a light supper in the evening. What is staggering is that there is no drinking – not water, not coffee, nothing – during those fasting hours.
On Easter Sunday chicken, cheep, goats and cattle are dispatched for the pot as the fasting comes to an end in no uncertain terms. Sunday sees piles of sheep skins on street corners, to be picked up by small dealers in trucks. For the days leading up to Easter flocks of sheep and goats as well as herds of oxen were driven by herders into the city, chickens were driven in trucks and pick ups. They are sold at impromptu markets all over the city to be slaughtered in back yards. Prices of livestock more than double for Easter. Sheep come to Addis with drovers bringing them across countryside from several hundred miles away, across Shoa and even as far as Wollo.
After Easter there is no fasting not even on Wednesdays and Fridays until after Pentecost on 4 June (Parakilitos). In the countryside the end of the fasting is celebrated in different ways. In Tigray priests are feted with parties held by different households from their parish. In Wollo I have seen the girls making swings from rope to hand off trees and play on them singing songs, while the boys have javelin contests. Its also a second wedding season as people like to get married before the rainy season and after the fasting. These are enjoyable times in the countryside, and if you have the chance to spend a week or so up in the countryside on a Tesfa Trek in Wollo, Tigray or the Simiens you will be a very welcome guest and participant at the celebrations.
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!