Perhaps one of the most joyous occasions in the Ethiopian calendar is Timkat, and for me it embodies so much that is wonderful about this country: an unadulterated joy and religious fervour, a purity of mind and body, and an overwhelming tangible happiness that is quite difficult to put into words.
Timkat celebrates Ephiphany; Christ's Baptism by St John in the River Jordan and falls on January 12th each year (or for us, January 19th by our calendar).
Celebrating Timkat in Gondar, Northern Ethiopia
I was lucky enough to experience this festival in the city of Gondar in northern Ethiopia and it left a lasting impression… Gondar was founded by Emperor Fasilidas in 1635 and served as the imperial capital for about 250 years. It is set in the most dramatic location surrounded by hills and mountains and is a high point on any tour of the historical north with its fairytale 17th century castles and palaces. There is a rather good hotel called The Landmark which takes advantage of these hills and is set high up overlooking the city in peace and quiet amongst leafy vegetation and fragrant flowers. On my visit the very amiable President of Ethiopia - Mr Girme Wolde-Giorgis - was taking tea on the terrace and quite bizarrely I then found myself sitting two seats down from him during the baptism ceremony….
Bombed with silver paper and grass
The festivities had started in the morning where we had prime position overlooking the main square in town as marching brass bands in smart military blue paraded around led by a feisty looking woman twirling a baton in a tiny skirt and fishnet tights. Ethiopians have an inability to contain themselves and everyone gets involved; as the event unfolded the throngs grew larger and simultaneous lines of singing, dancing and clapping people threaded into the square. Then the priests arrived, holding aloft replicas of the Arks of the Covenant on their heads. They were dressed magnificently in heavily brocaded robes that sparkled in the sun. Gleaming men tirelessly rolled out a red carpet for them to walk on which would then be rolled up and run around to the front of the procession to be unrolled again which meant the procession inched forward at a snails pace. The air was heavy with incense and with a whirring drone, a tiny plane appeared overhead and dive bombed the crowds scattering us all with silver paper and grass. The procession of priests, deacons, singers, dancers, children and hangers on made it's way out of the town centre to the pool of Fasilides - about a 2kms journey and this is where the Covenants are kept for one night before the baptismal ceremony the next day.
80,000 people for the baptismal ceremony
We rose at 3am and joined a quietly murmuring mass of people heading towards the pool; everyone was dressed in white and held candles and the air was thick with anticipation. The pool is enclosed by a tall stone wall with six turrets and we moved through the crowds to find wooden benches overlooking the water, and trees whose branches were laden with children keen to get a good view. The sun rose, a beady eyed eagle perched on a turret and the priests arrived and made their way to the water's edge to line up and start the ceremony with much chanting and swaying. They looked wonderful in vivid blue velvet and yellow capes, white turbans and ornate necklaces. Some leant on silver topped canes and had a doze whilst others broke into clapping and singing. The ceremony ebbed and flowed, and then seemed to reach a crescendo and 80,000 people strained forward to see the head priest dip a huge gold cross into the river. Young boys frantically stripped to their pants and leapt into the pool shouting and screaming and joyous mayhem broke out. The President was whisked away as hundreds of people continued to throw themselves gleefully into the pool spraying us with holy water. After a thorough soaking we made our way to a large arena close by where the three day fast is broken; people drink tej - a strong alcoholic brew made from mead, and eat Ambasha, special bread, and sheep are slaughtered (making a delectable breakfast of raw meat and firewater).