The Timkat Festival
Christmas is a distant memory for most of us, but for Ethiopians, Christmas is a whole season that’s just coming to an end now. Ethiopia was one of the first countries in the world to adopt Christianity, and as such it adheres to the ancient traditions that sit at the heart of its Orthodox Tewahedo Church. Timkat, celebrated every year on the 19th of January, is one of those traditions, possibly the most important in the Church’s calendar.
The Amharic word timkat means “baptism”, and the festival marks the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan.
Timkat is a huge deal and a seriously religious festival. Preparations for this spectacular event, possibly one of the biggest and most colourful on the African continent, begin on the 18th, when “tabots” – models of the Ark of the Covenant – are wrapped in fine cloths and carried on the heads of priests down to the river or other place of worship. Local people don white shawls – Ethiopians wear white when they go to church – and follow the procession.
Mass starts in the early hours of the 19th and continues for hours. When Mass is over, the water is blessed and the congregants take to the rivers, submerging themselves in a re-enactment of Christ’s baptism. Of course, it’s a happy occasion and that means the celebrations go on all day and are accompanied by feasting and music. As well as eating their favourite Timkat food, Ethiopians celebrate important occasions with elaborate coffee ceremonies.
On the 20th, the tabots are carried back to the churches in another procession that marks the end of the festival.
One of the best places to observe Timkat is the town of Gondar, home to the 17th century castle built by King Fasilides. In the grounds of the castle is a huge open-air bath. The bath is usually empty, but during Timkat it’s filled with water and the locals dive in. A few years ago I was fortunate enough to visit Ethiopia over the festive season. I missed Timkat by a couple of weeks. When I visited King Fasilides castle it was empty. Next time I go, I’m definitely going for Timkat, and I’m taking my swimming costume.
Want to learn more about other traditions from around the world? Read our article here.
By Lesley McRobb