About a week ago we celebrated one of the biggest holidays in the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition – Epiphany or Timket. It was a three day celebration with parades, holy water blessings, eating, discovering new parts of Gondar, and learning more about the Orthodox tradition.
As a bit of background, the Orthodox Epiphany is different from what most protestant Christians think of it. I grew up understanding Epiphany as the time when the wise men came to Jesus (ya, it wasn’t Christmas Eve, sorry Nativity sets). But Orthodox Epiphany is the celebration of when Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River some 30 years later. Epiphany being less of the wise men’s eureka moment and more of the commencement of Jesus’ mission and teachings on Earth.
Going even farther into background, the Arc of the Covenant is also believed to be housed in Ethiopia (Axum- Tigray Region). It was taken here from Jerusalem for safekeeping by Menelik I, the lovechild of the Queen of Sheba (Ethiopian) and King Solomon (wise old dude ruling Jerusalem). But Menelik didn’t exactly ask permission to take the Arc, thus creating a legend of Indiana Jones proportions (seriously, Indiana Jones goes to Ethiopia in the Last Crusade). Each Orthodox Church has a replica of the Arc of the Covenant and during Timket these arcs get paraded around each city or small town. But no one is supposed to look upon it (since it houses the Holy of Holies and all) so what you end up seeing are a bunch of umbrellas running around town.
What makes the Timket celebration in Gondar unique, and the biggest in the nation, is the ceremony at the Fasilides Baths. Most towns have parades and some holy water blessings, but Gondar goes through an elaborate ceremony and a priest converts and entire castle moat into Holy Water. Ya, it’s epic.
So I’ll walk you through some of the celebrations, history and ceremony from the vantage point behind my camera. My house was directly on the parade route and only 10 mins walk from the baths so I can safely say I was in the thick of the celebration all weekend.
Friday afternoon the celebration started with a parade of all the churches coming together with their priests, arcs, some floats and thousands of people walking from each church to the baths. There are 44 arcs (44 Orthodox Churches) in total in Gondar.
Each church had their own personality, uniform and group. In addition to the church processions many people joined and watched the parade in their finest traditional clothing [future blog post]. For women, habesha libs, as their known, are the white shawls (nutellas) with white linen dresses with beautiful embroideries on the hemlines. This year, there were a lot of Gojam (West Amhara region) farmer clothes as well. The green or blue outfits with the buttons made for the cutest little children.
As the parade passed we jumped on to the end and walked toward the baths. On the way, impromptu dance parties were happening everywhere. Morgan and I made sure to document. I was lucky enough to host Dan and Nicole, third year extension volunteers who spent their first two years in Gondar and were able to introduce me to more organizations, hole in the wall restaurants, and their favorite places around the city.
At the baths on Friday evening, the arcs arrive and the priests begin to set up. The more committed pilgrims stood vigil all night saying prayers and giving thanks. We returned the next morning in the dark at 4:30am to bleachers already full. BBC was doing a documentary on Timket this year (yay for Ethiopian tourism!) so there were a lot of media around as well. But being some of the only ferenjis able to say more than four words in Amharic we got pulled to the front and given prime spots. The enthusiasm by Ethiopians to share their traditions is really great to witness and experience. The weekend was full of anecdotes extolling Ethiopian hospitality, including the next day when five priests walked into my compound and invited us to have tea with them.
The ceremony lasted through the dawn and priests and worshipers sang, chanted and prayed as the sun came up. A quick sermon was given in Amharic and one of the priests blessed the water in the moat around Fasilides Castle. Not even three seconds later, hundreds of young men stripped down and jumped 20 feet off the walls into the water. Events got pretty chaotic as mobs pressed in around the sides of the pool. It’s a moment of ecstasy as (mostly men) jump into the water for blessing and then turn around and “bless” everyone else by throwing large splashes into the crowd. It was a lot of fun, if not a little claustrophobic. Young boys climbed over scaffolding, jumped from trees, and old women filled water bottles with holy water to bring back to their homes.
As an aside, in Ethiopia, there is a superstition that holy water can cure AIDS and so part of the public health communications approach (which is part of my work here) has been working with religious institutions not to necessarily discredit this belief, but to advocate a dual holy water/ART drug strategy.
The baths are open all weekend for revelers to come take a dip. Sunday afternoon we returned and the baths resembled more of a community pool with kids diving in and out and racing each other around the sides. It doesn’t sound like there is an expiration date for the Holy Water, so I filled up a bottle myself. It’s sitting full of silt on my kitchen counter- I’ll have to remember not to boil my pasta in it.
So there’s a long winded but very brief description of Timket in Gondar. It’s clearly the place to be for this holiday if the explosion of tourists (both foreign and Ethiopian) are any indication. It was a great introduction to some more of the cultural aspects of the city and Orthodox faith which pretty much dominates this region. I’m taking reservations for my floor for next year, but you’ll have to bring me chocolate.
For more Timket photos here is a link to my facebook album