Meskel: Ethiopian festival for the true Cross a ‘cultural heritage experience’

Big crowds, white clothing, dark-skinned people

Meskel celebrations in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo by peteropaliu, courtesy of Flickr

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 27: Across Ethiopian Orthodox and Eritrean Orthodox communities, bonfires on the eve of Meskel remind families of an ancient story: the vivid dreams and forthcoming discovery of the true Cross by Queen Helena, in the fourth century. On Meskel, the faithful attend religious services, gather with family and feast together.

The traditional story tells that St. Helena instructed the people of Jerusalem to bring wood for a bonfire. After adding incense, smoke rose high into the sky then returned to the ground to touch the precise spot where the true Cross was located. Then, a part of the true Cross was brought to Ethiopia where it lies at the mountain of Amba Geshen.


The Meskel festival traces its roots back 1,600 years. Although it hasn’t been celebrated with the same level of enthusiasm in every century, Ethiopians certainly enjoy the festival today. Colorful processions begin in the early evening of Meskel eve; firewood is gathered by community members, and the bonfire site is sprinkled with fresh yellow daisies. Bonfires burn the night through, and when the flames at last begin to smolder, leftover ash is used to mark the foreheads of the faithful, in an act similar to that of Ash Wednesday.

Did you know? Ethiopia is the only country in the world that celebrates the finding of the cross on a national level. Ethiopia recently petitioned—and succeeded, in December of 2013—in requesting UNESCO to register the Meskel events in Addis Ababa as a cultural heritage experience, for its “ancient nature … color and significance … and the attraction it has for a growing number of tourists as well as the immense participation of the society.”

Ethiopian honey wine, exotic spices and spicy hot peppers complement plates mounded with food, as family-honored recipes fill the table. In community settings, dozens of women gather to prepare food for hungry churchgoers, humming and singing traditional songs while they work. Homemade cheese, tomatoes and lentils are served with injera flatbread. (Make injera with this recipe, from Genius Kitchen.) Following food, the time-honored Ethiopian coffee ceremony commences.

Timkat: Ethiopian Christians reenact baptism of Jesus with vibrant festival

Close-up of three dark-skinned men in elaborate religious robes and carrying ornate cloth umbrellas under sunny skies

Priests celebrate Timkat in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo by Andrew Heavens, courtesy of Flickr

FRIDAY, JANUARY 19: Rich, deep hues and velvet fabrics dot the landscape in Ethiopia during one of the grandest festivals of the year: Timkat, the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian ceremony commemorating the baptism of Jesus. As the countryside’s rolling hills are blooming with yellow spring flowers, pilgrims and priests dress in their finest clothing and form a procession that weaves through the rock-hewn churches and age-old passageways of Ethiopia. Central to the processions are models of the Ark of the Covenant (called tabots), carried by priests with caution and pride. To Ethiopian Christians, the tabot signifies the manifestation of Jesus as the Savior, when he came to the Jordan River to be baptized.

Did you know? Ethiopia is home to more UNESCO sites than any other country in Africa. In December 2013, the Demera festival of the Meskel holiday was registered as world intangible heritage by UNESCO; Ethiopia has since submitted study findings of three intangible cultural heritages to UNESCO for registration, one of which is Timket (Timkat).

Timkat events begin on Timkat eve, when the tabots are ceremoniously wrapped in cloth and carried by priests in a procession. In the earliest morning hours, while the sky is still dark, crowds gather near bodies of water to witness a blessing of the waters—a reenactment of the baptism of Christ. Crowds are sprinkled with water, and baptismal vows are renewed. When all rituals are complete, pilgrims return home for feasts and continued celebrations.

News organizations in the U.S. rarely cover Timkat, but reporters from the UK, India and Africa usually file stories. This year, the India-based Economic Times advises readers on the best spots in Ethiopia to visit for Timkat celebrations:

The Timkat Festival, an Orthodox Christian celebration of Epiphany, remembers the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. While Timkat is celebrated across the nation, the best place to attend the event is Lalibela, Gonder or Addis Ababa. The festival kick starts with a procession, during which the Tabots, models of the Ark of the Covenant, present on every Ethiopian altar are brought in from churches around Gondar. The Tabots are borne in procession, on the head of the priest, parading through the streets. The priests, escorted by drums and worshippers making merry, hold an overnight vigil until dawn. The services the following morning culminate in the priests blessing the waters of the historic Fasilides Bath. In Addis Ababa many tents are pitched in the grassy field at Jan Meda, to the northeast of the city centre.

Care to learn more?

If you have the Smithsonian channel available in your home, an episode of the Secrets series focuses on the Ark of the Covenant and includes a section on Ethiopia. Here is a link to watch an excerpt of that episode.

Timkat: Ethiopian Christians mark most magnificent festival of the year

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.