Timkat: Ethiopian Christians mark most magnificent festival of the year

White-clad priests line bank of body of water as onlookers watch ceremony for Timat (Epiphany) in Ethiopia

A Timkat ceremony in Gondar, Ethiopia. Photo by Terri O’Sullivan, courtesy of Flikckr

SUNDAY, JANUARY 19: The year’s richest and grandest festival takes place beneath the sunny skies of Ethiopia today, in the Christian ceremony of Timkat. Literally “baptism,” Timkat is the Ethiopian Orthodox celebration of the baptism of Jesus on the Jordan River. While an elaborate reenactment of the baptism is a significant aspect of the festival, colorful processions line the streets, as priests display Ethiopia’s pride—models of the Ark of the Covenant, the original of which Ethiopian Christians claim is kept safe in the Chapel of the Tablet in Aksum. (Get a photo “tour” of the festival at On Being.)

In Ethiopia’s dry season, the sun frequently shines upon centuries-old architecture during Timkat: grottos, rock-hewn churches and narrow stone passageways. Velvet-covered umbrellas, bobbing between buildings, dot the age-old landscape during Timkat.

Ceremonies begin in daylight, with several Tabots, or models of the Ark of the Covenant, being ceremonially wrapped in cloth and carried on the heads of priests in procession. In the early morning hours, at approximately 2 a.m., devotees gather near bodies of water to witness the blessing of the water; then some of the water is, afterward, sprinkled onto the gathered crowds. Several hours later, priests begin carrying the tabots back to their home sites: the churches. Clergy sing and dance, children play games and the mood is joyous. Upon the return of each tabot to its resting place, Christians feast with family and friends.

The mystery of the “Lost Ark” may never be fully resolved. (Read a story in USA Today.) Still, Ethiopia’s royal chronicle details the reign of the Queen of Sheba as a crucial event in the Ark’s history. According to the chronicle, the queen of Sheba traveled to Jerusalem to visit King Solomon, and on her way home, she bore a son of Solomon. Two decades later, the son returned to Jerusalem to visit Solomon, and his traveling companions stole the ark. The group arrived in Ethiopia, where Ethiopians believe the Ark still resides.

Meskel: Ethiopian Christians celebrate ‘cross’ day

Large group of Ethiopians in multitude of colors of robes

Meskel celebrations in Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of Flickr

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 27:  Men and women far and wide are mourning the tragic attacks at the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya—once again reminding the world of the many dangers of contemporary life across the African continent. But, just to the north of Kenya in Ethiopia, a colorful outdoor festival will be breaking out this week. Meskel is little known in the U.S., but is a beloved festival of processions, lots of daisies and bonfires, as well, in Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox communities.

The term generally is translated as “cross” and is a feast widely regarded among Ethiopians as a celebration of the True Cross—at least a portion of it—coming to Ethiopia and still preserved today in the cross-shaped Amba Geshen —a mountain in Ethiopia with historic and sacred associations for the Ethiopian people. (Note: Dates vary on many world holidays; Christians celebrate various Feasts of the Cross, each autumn. Wikipedia has an overview of these diverse observances.)

Meskel celebrations begin on Meskel Eve, in commemoration of the famed bonfire that Christian tradition says was lit by Queen Helena in the 4th century. Tradition holds that Queen Helena had a dream in which it was revealed that if she made a bonfire, she would be pointed to the location of the cross on which Jesus Christ had been crucified. At that, Helena ordered the people of Jerusalem to bring wood to make a pile; frankincense was added to the logs, and flames ignited. (Wikipedia has details.) The smoke rose high and returned to the ground some distance later—at the spot of the true Cross. At the discovery, Empress Helena distributed pieces of the Cross to the Ethiopian Church and other churches.

Ethiopian legend has it that when one stands too close to the true Cross, he is made naked by its strong light; in a preventative measure, the Cross was buried on the sacred mountain. The monastery of Gishen Mariam houses a volume that records the ancient story of the true Cross and how it was obtained.

The bonfires lit on Meskel Eve are known as Demera. The firewood is first covered with fresh daisies, and following the bonfire, charcoal is used to shape a cross onto the foreheads of attendees (similar to Ash Wednesday customs common in Western Christianity).

ETHIOPIAN NEWS: PUBLIC HEALTH ASSOCIATION TO BUILD NEW HEADQUARTERS

More recent “good news” from Ethiopia: The Ethiopian Public Health Association (EPHA) recently laid the cornerstone for the construction of new headquarters. Compared to the current rented building, EPHA will soon call home a nine-story building complex. (All Africa has the story.) Construction will be partly funded by the Centre for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. Representatives report plans for the building to also offer public health education and training.

Enkutatash: Rastafari, Ethiopians worldwide welcome New Year 2006

Red, yellow and green balloons decorating outside of restaurant

An Ethiopian restaurant in Canada, decorated for the New Year (Enkutatash). Photo courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 11: Dip a piece of injera into stew and toast the New Year with Ethiopians—today is Enkutatash, the end of the rainy season that has long been associated with the Queen of Sheba’s return from a visit with King Solomon. While many regions of the globe look toward autumn and the approaching cool weather, Ethiopia, alternatively, is welcoming spring! Bouquets of fresh flowers, which are blooming across the countryside, are common gifts on Enkutatash, as are cards and in-person greetings. Though not specifically a religious holiday, the largest Enkutatash celebrations in Ethiopia are held at the Ragual Church on Entoto Mountain and in the 14th-century Kostete Yohannes Church in Gaynt, where psalms, sermons and prayers can be heard outside the walls for three days. Colorful processions also dot the landscape. As Rastafari consider Ethiopia to be their spiritual homeland, they, also, mark this New Year. (Learn more at Rastaites.com.)

Note: The Ethiopian calendar is based on the ancient Coptic calendar, although due to varying calculations of the Annunciation of Christ, the Ethiopian calendar is approximately 8 years behind the Gregorian. Thus, this is New Year 2006 in Ethiopia. (Want to know more about this unusual calenar? Wikipedia explains more in a longer article about the Ethiopian Calendar.)

NEW YEAR’S EVE TORCHES AND DAYTIME FEASTING

The night before New Year, it’s custom for Ethiopians to bundle dry leaves and wood, then set them on fire in front of their homes while they sing. Early the next morning, many head to church and, afterward, enjoy a feast of traditional fare: injera (flat bread) and wat (stew) forms the base of this meal. Following the feast, children parade from house to house, singing and “selling” drawings for money, which they will spend in the evening. As the day draws to a close, families and friends visit one another and toast to the New Year, partaking in Ethiopian beer and other traditional drinks.

Did you know? Enkutatash means “gift of jewels,” recalling the gems that chiefs presented to the Queen of Sheba upon her return to Ethiopia after a visit to King Solomon in Jerusalem.

HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS GATHER
IN WASHINGTON, D.C. FOR ENKUTATASH

Approximately 200,000 Ethiopian-Americans reside in the area surrounding Washington, D.C. In that region of the U.S., celebrations for Enkutatash have grown until they now fill the area around the Washington Monument. Though falling on a solemn day of American remembrance now (see our 9/11 story), many Ethiopian leaders hope to make their holiday as well-known as St. Patrick’s Day or Cinco de Mayo. (Read more from the Washington Post’s Style Blog.)

Rolled flatbread next to colorful Ethiopian dipping foods

Photo courtesy of Flickr

For those who want to experience Ethiopian culture on days other than September 11, check regional listings in your part of the world. Events often take place days before or after the 9/11 New Year date. Last year, an Ethiopian Expo promoted Ethiopian businesses and dancing, reggae music, traditional food and the lighting of torches enlivened areas beneath the Washington Monument. (The Washington Post reported.)

Interested in cooking up some Ethiopian cuisine? A Spicy Perspective breaks down a typical Ethiopian platter, complete with photos and recipes.

Learn proper Ethiopian dinner etiquette, and access more authentic recipes from the University of Pennsylvania’s African Studies Center.