A painting of Saint-King Lalibela, on a canvas in Lalibela
Today, 19th June / Senay 12, is known as Senay Mikael and is an important Saint’s day across the country. But in Lalibela it is the most important holy day in Lalibela after Gena, for it is the anniversary of the death 796 years ago, of the Saint-King Lalibela, whose name the town has taken. He is said to have died in 1221 and is renown as the architect of the amazing labyrinth of rock hewn churches which are the focus of the town of Lalibela, formerly known as Roha.
Most sources available on the internet are vague on when was King Lalibela born and how long he lived. Entries from the late Richard Pankhurst and other well researched entries such as museums are vague about his year of birth often preferring to give his dates as late 12th
Entrance to Mikael & Golgotta in Lalibela
Century and early 13th Century. Others only really agree about his reign (most agree with 1181-1221). It is often stated that King Lalibela became King and took the thrown name Gebre Meskal (as Ras Tefari took the name Haile Selassie) in 1181. Wikipedia however states that he was born in Roha (the previous name for Lalibela) in 1162 AD and died in 1221 at the age of 58/59. The Dictionary of African Biography notes King Lalibela’s dates as 1150’s to c.1225. It could be that the difference between 1150s (approx 1155) and 1162 would be down to the difference between the western and Ethiopian calendars. The circa 1225 for his death is not out of line with the suggested 1221! It should be noted that in mediaeval times living beyond 40 was probably beyond the average life expectancy and certainly late 50’s was an old man. Few would have lived beyond their early 60s.
His tomb is in the church Golgota which adjoins Beta Mikael
Bas Relief in Golgotha church in Lalibela
in the main cluster of churches in Lalibela, making this a very special double annual saint’s day. Yesterday on the eve of the big day, there was singing and chanting around Bet Mikael and Golgotta (where the Saint-King is buried) and this morning the two tabots (Mikael and Lalibela) were paraded out to a nearby tent with great pomp and celebration, and an hour or so after returned to the church. There is also an especially big market today full of livestock and other local produce, even though its not the usual Saturday market day.
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.
Bale Wold church in Addis, crowds gather to see the Tabot
In the same compound to Selassie Church (one on the main churches in Addis) is the church of Bale Wold, (Feast of God the Son). Today Tahsas 29 is the fest day for the church and thousands of church goers flock to the church to see the Tabot paraded around he church and here the mass.
St Gabriel’s day in Addis Ababa
Yesterday’s St. Gabriel’s day is one of the biggest saint’s days in the Ethiopian Calendar. The holy Tabot is paraded around the church as thousands of worshipers attend services at the Gabriel church in the city centre (behind the palace above Cassanchis).The roads leading to the church are closed to traffic.
Most women will wear traditional white cotton dresses and shawls and men will where a Gabi – a white cotton blanket – over their clothes. Back at home grass will be laid out over the floor for a coffee ceremony, incense will be burned and special home baked traditional bread will be shared out.
Addis Ababa might be modernising at a fast and furious rate, but the old traditions remain in place.
PS – note the leaning building in the photo. If you look closely you will see that they could not decide whether the windows should conform to the lean or be horizontal! Its a strange one for sure…
A Tabot being paraded
All goes silent. The murmuring from the churches has stopped. The Tabots have left the church to be paraded in the compound. They are the sacred holy heart of each church, often said to be a replica of the Arc of Covenant, but actually a replica of the Arc’s contents – the tablets of stone. The town is silent. No one likes to drive when the Tabots are out, so many taxis are not working.
A Sea of yellow shirts as the Great Ethiopian Run sets off – curtsey of the GER -http://ethiopianrun.org
Its also the start of the run, thousands of participants gathered in Meskal Square in the heart of Addis are off in a sea of green and yellow.. the top athletes will finish in under 30 minutes, some twenty thousand will finish in the hour that follows, running, walking and dancing their way along the course- my 12 year old son with them.
Today is Senay Mikael in Ethiopia (Senay being the month), and is one of the three big St.Michael’s days. The saints’s days come round every month (Mikael on the 12th of each month), but each church celebrates one or two and occasionally three big ‘annual days’. St.Michael’s big annual days are in Senay (now), Hedar (November) and Ter (January – this is the day after Timkat).
In the west Michaelmas was celebrated on 29th September and gave rise to the name of that autumn term in universities, and was one of the 4 days when quarterly rent payments were due.Things generally started a new at Michaelmas.
In Ethiopia the Senay 12 also marks the anniversary of the death of King and Saint Lalibela, and so in Lalibela itself today is very special as both Mikael and Lalibela’s tabots will be paraded out.
Entrance to Mikael & Golgotta in Lalibela
On 19th June Lalibela celebrates a big double festival, as it is both an annual day for St Mikael (Senay Mikael) and the anniversary of the death of the Saint-King Lalibela. This is the biggest celebration in Lalibela after Gena (Christmas) and attracts many Ethiopian pilgrims from the surrounding area to see the festival … but few tourists.
On the eve of the day itself, there will be singing and chanting around Bete Mikael & Golgotta (where the Saint-King is buried), and in the morning the two Tabots (Mikael and Lalibela) will be paraded out to a nearby tent with great pomp and celebration, and an hour or so after will return to the church.
Later on you should see the market – although it is a Friday there will be an especially big market that day in town, full of livestock and other local produce.
This is a day you should not miss!
Tesfa Tours are offering an all inclusive 4 day package for $700 USD per person (minimum group 2 people) including local flights (based on having local resident cards or national ID), transport, accommodation at the best hotel in town, entry fees & guides, AND two nights trekking in Meket with the local communities as your hosts. (Only excludes meals and drink in Lalibela, bottled drinks on the trek and personal expenses and gratuities etc). Please email email@example.com for more details.
A big saints day coming up for anyone planing a trip to Lalibela. On Thu 19 June (Senay 12) it is both the anniversary of King Lalibela’s death (808 years ago), and it is the big St Mikael’s day for the year. Both tabots will come out, there will be decorated horses and mules and the whole town will be out to celebrate. This is Lalibela’s second most important day (after Ethiopian Christmas) If you can make it there then it will be a day never to forget.
You could fly into Lalibela on Thursday – see the celebrations that day (after mass) and next day go on a trek in the mountains around, or spend some more time visiting the labyrinth of churches in the town.
Let Tesfa Tours help arrange a trip to see this magical town on this special day.
The festival is called Sebar-atsemu Giyorgis – and commemorates the day that St George’s bones were ground into dust. I decided to visit one of the Tesfa communities in Meket whose parish is St.George and where it is the big annual festival. So we went to Aina Amba Giyorgis on 26th January, the eve of the festival.
Aina Amba is in a stunning location, and the community cooked us a lovely dinner on the night before.
Next morning the crowds began to gather, and soon after 9am the Tabot was paraded out of the church carried by priests in colourful robes under brocade umbrellas. The crowd emerged from the wooded compound before emerging out onto the dry dusty grazing land below the church and with the tabot and priests in their midst accompanied it to its camp in a colourful tent nearby.
This was the signal for groups to start dancing and singing to the beat of the marvellous kabero drums. The dancing is an aggressive dance, with shoulders seemingly dislocated from the body jerking up and down to the drum’s beat.
After some hours the Tabot emerged from its tent and was again paraded as it slowly made its way up to the church, but this time with horses galloping around the procession. Now everyone was there, old men carrying older muskets, younger people from the nearby town, important people with colourful umbrellas, bit most in the traditional white cotton shawls.
At a given point the procession stopped and a series of wild horse races took place to honour the tabot. This is referred to as gooks, although there is no spear throwing as further south. The horses are wonderfully decorated with bright pompoms and colourful saddle cloths and the riders, three or four at a time, gallop up the fields, often without holding on.