Ethiopia 1996: Timkat – a Christian festival

 

 

Ethiopien 1996
The predominant religion in Ethiopia is the Tewahedo Church – an ancient, orthodox form of Christianity. This picture shows priests during the festival of Timkat, seeking protection from the fierce sun beneath a large umbrella. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

With my three companions, Uffe Gjøl Sørensen, Jørgen Bech, and Erling Krabbe, I fly to the small town of Lalibela in the northern highlands of Ethiopia. We have planned our trip, so that our arrival coincides with the first day of an important religious festival, Timkat, which is celebrated with vigour in Ethiopia every year in January.

 

The festival begins
In Lalibela, we try to locate vacant hotel rooms, but during the festival everything is fully booked. The staff in one of the hotels, however, permits us to pitch our tents on their lawn. We then hurry towards the centre of town, as we have heard drum beats and a penetrating yelling, ”li-li-li-li”, the source of which, as it turns out, is a large group of women. Numerous priests are gathered, all wearing silk and cotton garments down to their ankles. Many of them carry colourful umbrellas as a protection against the fierce sunshine. Occasionally, fantastic rolls of drums can be heard from the centre of the group of priests, accompanied by blowing horns.

On the slopes along the main path, thousands of villagers and white-clad pilgrims are gathered, some with a yellow cross woven or sewed on to their back. A long procession of priests now marches past, divided into sub-groups, one from each of the churches of Lalibela and its surroundings. At the rear end of each group, white-clad young priests are dancing and singing, accompanied by rolls of drums and fanfares from brass horns. The priests are followed by hundreds of pilgrims and spectators.

The procession comes to a halt in a large square, where one of the priests gives a ceremonious speech, lasting about half an hour. Several times, we hear the name Iohannis being mentioned, in all probability referring to John the Baptist, who plays a significant role during Timkat. Among the white-clad Ethiopian priests, we notice a few European priests, wearing black clothes, some sporting high ’hat-box’ hats – one even a bowler. When the speech is over, the crowds disperse.

During the ceremony, dark clouds have gathered, bringing lightning and thunder, followed by pouring rain. We seek shelter in the hotel lobby, from where we can study the bird life in the hotel garden, comprising e.g. speckled pigeon (Columba guinea), the endemic banded barbet (Lybius undatus), the strange speckled mousebird (Colius striatus), which climbs about in the bushes with incredible agility, and an Ethiopian thrush (Psophocichla simensis), searching for worms on the lawn, just like the European blackbird (Turdus merula) back home.

 

 

Ethiopien 1996
Ethiopien 1996
Ethiopien 1996
On the slopes, thousands of villagers and white-clad pilgrims are gathered, watching a procession of priests, slowly passing by. Many of the priests carry colourful umbellas as a protection against the fierce sunshine. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Ethiopien 1996
This priest is walking around among pilgrims and spectators, collecting money in an upside-down umbrella. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Ethiopien 1996
Spectator during the festival of Timkat. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Ethiopien 1996
This child is probably thinking: ”What does he want?” (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Ethiopien_8_p1_resize
Shy young girls, one of them with a peculiar hairstyle. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Ethiopien 1996
Young female pilgrims, their heads partly shaven. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Ethiopien 1996
On the lawn in front of the hotel, an Ethiopian thrush (Psophocichla simensis) was searching for worms. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

The Orthodox Tewahedo Church
The predominant religion in Ethiopia is an ancient, orthodox form of Christianity, the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church, which has 40-45 million followers, making it the largest of all Oriental Orthodox Churches. This group of churches also comprise the Eritrean Tewahedo Church, the Coptic Church of Alexandria, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church, and the Malankara Church of India. Until 1959, the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church was administered by the Coptic Church of Alexandria, but was then granted its own patriarch by Cyril VI, who, besides being Coptic Pope of Alexandria, was also Patriarch of all Africa.

Tewahedo means ‘unified’, referring to the Oriental Orthodox belief in the one single unified Nature of Christ, meaning that a union of the divine and human natures into one is essential to accomplish the divine salvation of humankind.

Timkat is the Ethiopian Epiphany, usually celebrated on January 19 (in leap years on January 20). This festival is best known for its ritual re-enactment of baptism, celebrating the baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River. During one of the Timkat ceremonies, the Tabot – a model of the Ark of the Covenant, the Biblical chest which, according to The Book of Exodus, contained the two tablets, on which The Ten Commandments were inscribed – is wrapped in ornate cloth and carried in a procession of priests. It represents the manifestation of Jesus as the Messiah, when he approached John the Baptist to be baptized. Around 2 a.m., the Tabot is carried to a nearby stream or pool, where a ritual cleansing of it is performed. Later, water is sprinkled on the participants of the procession. Some also immerse themselves, thus symbolically renewing their baptismal vows. (Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethiopian_Orthodox_Tewahedo_Church)

 

Twelve stone churches
Throughout the night, the festival continues with speeches and chanting. Obviously, the priests are of the opinion that everybody should have the pleasure of listening to these speeches, as they are transmitted through numerous loudspeakers. All night long, people come and go in the darkness.

Lalibela houses a unique array of churches and monasteries, dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries. Many of these churches are carved down into the bedrock, which is soft, red, volcanic tuff – Beit Maryam, Selassie’s Chapel, The Tomb of Adam, and Mashal Chapel, to mention but a few. The most striking of these churches is Beit Giyorgis, shaped like a cross. You enter this church by walking in an underground tunnel, or by using a ladder, which is leaning against the sheer rock wall.

Accompanied by a young guide, we walk through a maze of narrow alleys and niches, connecting the stone churches. It is indeed a peculiar feeling to walk around in semi-darkness, deep down between the tall, ancient buildings. Life here seems not to have changed since the churches were hewn out of the rocks. Some priests still live in small caves, which have been lined with sheep skins, to keep the priests warm during the cold nights. One priest is sitting on a sheep skin in the sunshine, absorbed in reading holy scripts.

We pay a visit to some of the churches, where we are welcomed by their priests. The interior walls are decorated with carvings and murals, depicting e.g. Saint George, killing the dragon. The churches also contain a large number of archaic artefacts, e.g. splendid crosses in gold and silver.

 

 

Ethiopien 1996
Lalibela is famous for its twelve stone churches, many of which are carved down into the bedrock. This picture shows the Mashal Chapel. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Ethiopien 1996 
The most striking of the stone churches is Beit Giyorgis, shaped like a cross. You enter this church by walking in an underground tunnel, or by using a ladder, which is leaning against the sheer rock wall. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Ethiopien 1996
Some of the priests live in small caves, with sheep skins to keep themselves warm during the cold nights. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Ethiopien 1996 
The spartan room of a priest inside a rock church. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Ethiopien 1996
The ceiling and walls of the churches – here Beit Mariam – are decorated with carvings and murals. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Ethiopien 1996 
Inside the churches are a number of archaic artefacts, e.g. splendid silver crosses. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Ethiopien 1996
A priest presents a golden cross, standing in front of a painting of Saint George, killing the dragon. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Ethiopien 1996 
A speckled pigeon (Columba guinea), sitting in a window opening in one of the rock churches. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Good, strong coffee
On this day, the most important ceremony of Timkat has already taken place, when a long procession of priests, followed by thousands of pilgrims, very early in the morning carried the Tabot to a small river, in which a ritual cleansing of The Ark was performed.

The processions of priests continue today, so we take our seats on a slope, from where we have a splendid view of the masses. The procession passes by just below, with plenty of drum rolls, horn-blowing, dancing and singing. People are happy and smiling, because this is a very important occasion: the annual cleansing of The Ark of the Covenant!

Late in the afternoon, we pay a visit to our guide’s home, which – like most other dwellings in Lalibela – is a humble, circular hut, with mud walls and a roof of corrugated iron. His mother serves coffee for us, newly roasted, newly ground, and newly brewed – good, strong coffee! While we enjoy this delicious drink, we are surrounded by the guide’s six smaller siblings, who smile and laugh and point at the strange foreigners. We feel very welcome!

A perfect end to a perfect stay in Lalibela.

 

 

Ethiopien 1996
Our guide’s mother served coffee for us, newly roasted, newly ground, and newly brewed – good, strong coffee! (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

(Uploaded June 2016)

 

(Revised October 2017)