Ethiopia 1996: Timkat – a Christian festival



Procession of priests during the festival of Timkat. Many carry colourful umbrellas as a protection against the fierce sunshine. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Accompanied by three Danish friends, 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 Orthodox Tewahedo Church
The predominant religion in Ethiopia is an ancient, orthodox form of Christianity, the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church, which is the largest of all Oriental Orthodox Churches, with 40-45 million followers.

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’. Contrary to the belief of the Roman Catholic, the Greek and the Russian Orthodox, the Anglican, the Lutheran, and most other Protestant Churches, that Christ has two natures, a divine and a human, the Tewahedo and other Oriental Orthodox Churches believe in one single unified Nature of Christ, meaning that a unification of the divine and human natures of Christ into one is essential to accomplish the divine salvation of humankind. (Source:


Celebration of the baptism of Christ
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.

The Tabot is 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.

During one of the Timkat ceremonies, the Tabot 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.



These priests seek protection from the fierce sun beneath a large umbrella. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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 the beating of drums 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 also 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, undoubtedly referring to John the Baptist, who, of course, plays a significant role in this festival.

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.



On the slopes, thousands of villagers and white-clad pilgrims were gathered. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Spectators during Timkat. One of the girls has a peculiar hairstyle. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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



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



”What does he want?” this child on his mother’s back is probably thinking. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Birdlife in a hotel garden
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, which includes 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), which is searching for worms on the lawn, similar to the European blackbird (Turdus merula) back home.

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.



This Ethiopian thrush was searching for worms on the hotel lawn. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Twelve stone churches
Lalibela houses a unique array of churches and monasteries, dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries – Beit Maryam, Selassie’s Chapel, The Tomb of Adam, and Mashal Chapel, to mention but a few.

Many of these buildings are carved into the bedrock, which is soft, red, volcanic tuff. The most striking of the churches is Beit Giyorgis, carved down into the bedrock and shaped like a cross. It can only be entered by walking in an underground tunnel, or by using ladders, which are 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 these 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, one of which depicts Saint George, killing the dragon. The churches contain a large number of archaic artefacts, including splendid crosses in gold and silver.



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



The most striking of the stone churches is Beit Giyorgis, shaped like a cross. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Some of the priests live in small caves, with sheep skins to keep themselves warm during the cold nights. Note the growth of algae on the rock wall. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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



The ceiling and walls of the churches, in this case Beit Mariam, are decorated with carvings and murals. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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



Displaying a golden cross, this priest is standing in front of a painting of Saint George, killing the dragon. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



The speckled pigeon is very common in Ethiopia. This one is 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, very early in the morning, followed by thousands of pilgrims, 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: the annual cleansing of The Ark of the Covenant has taken place!

Late in the afternoon, we pay a visit to our guide’s home, a humble, circular hut like most other dwellings in Lalibela, with mud walls and a roof of corrugated iron. Two of his younger brothers receive us outside their home and accompany us the last bit of the way.

In the courtyard, 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 his 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.



Two of our guide’s younger brothers accompanied us the last bit of the way. (Photo copyright © by Uffe Gjøl Sørensen)



His mother served coffee for us, newly roasted, newly ground, and newly brewed – good, strong coffee! (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



(Uploaded June 2016)


(Latest update August 2019)