What the Timket Festival in Ethiopia is all about?

What the Timket Festival in Ethiopia is all about?

Every year on the 19th of January a procession of priests, locals and visitors all chanting, singing and dancing enthusiastically  fills the streets of the Ethiopian cities. It’s the celebration of Timket, or Epiphany – the biggest and most anticipated religious event in the Ethiopian calendar. It commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River and is the day when worshippers can renew their religious vows. But to understand better the significance it has in the Ethiopian culture we need to go about two thousand years back in time, to Biblical times.

Christianity in Ethiopia and the Ark of the Covenant

 Ethiopia was one of the first countries to adopt Christianity, there are even some claims it was actually the first one (Armenia is now officially recognized as such). King Ezana from the ancient Kingdom of Aksum (in the region of nowadays northern Ethiopia) was the one who declared it a state religion around 330 AC after first converting himself. He is now recognized as one of the Ethiopian saints. Christianity was however widely spread in the region even before that. More than half of the population nowadays is Christian, with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church being the biggest among the Oriental Orthodox churches. A central place in Ethiopian Christian tradition takes the legend of Queen Makeda and the Ark of the Covenant which is found in the Kebra Nagast – a national epic that has the status of Holy Scripture in Ethiopia. It tells the story of Queen Makeda, also known as The Queen of Sheba who came to rule around the 10th century BC. Upon hearing about the wisdom and wealth of Israel’s King Solomon she travelled to his land to learn from him how to be a good monarch, bringing with herself a lot of gifts, spices and gold. Shortly after returning back home, she gave birth to Menelik I – son of King Solomon, who would later become king himself and start the Solomonic Dynasty which ruled the Ethiopian Empire until 1974. But before that, he travelled to Israel himself to be a student of his father as well. It is believed that in those times the original Ark of the Covenant, containing the two stone tablets with the Ten Commandments which Moses received from God on the Mount Sinai was housed in the First Temple in Jerusalem. When Menelik returned back to Ethiopia, he took the ark with him and it is believed that it has been in the country ever since then, in the  Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum, guarded by a single monk who is the only one allowed to see it and has taken a vow to guard it until his death. 

Why is Timket significant?

Every church in Ethiopia has a replica of the ark and the tablets (called tabots). People consider them sacred and believe that just being near them is a blessing and a way to get closer to God. And everybody has a chance to do so during the celebration of Timket when the priests take the tabots out, cover them with richly ornamented and colorful cloth and carry them on their heads, while leading the procession. For the worshippers the Timket celebration is extremely important, this is a chance to renew their vows, to remember the baptism of Jesus Christ and to strengthen their faith. But for young people who have decided to follow the path of spirituality and become priests it is even more significant since partaking in the ceremony is seen as a rite of passage to priesthood.

What to expect?

The celebration of Timket lasts three days and starts with the spectacular procession. The locals are all dressed in white and wear the traditional scarves – netela. The priests from the churches lead the procession, dressed solemnly, carrying the tabouts on their heads and richly embrodied umbrellas above them. It’s an exhilarating crowd, where everybody is singing, clapping, chanting, playing the begena (Ethiopian string instrument) or drums. The final destination of the parade is a body of water, be it a river, lake or pond. In Gondar, one of the best places to take part in the festival, the celebration takes place in the Fasiladas' Bath, which was likely built mainly for religious purposes. The tabots stay here overnight in a tent specially built for that purpose. Many people choose to stay as well and spend the night praying facing the tabots. Early in the morning the next day, before dawn is the culmination: after a morning prayer, the senior priest dips a golden cross in the water to bless it and then sprinkles the people with it. This is the moment when even greater joy and festive mood overtake the crowds, some people even jump in the water to renew their vows. The celebration continues during the whole day before all the tabots, except for one, are returned to the churches. The tabot that stays is the one from St. Michael’s Church, since the next day is the day of St. Michael and the celebration will continue.

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