Although Timket is translated as Epiphany, the fact that both this Eastern Orthodox Christian and its Western Christian counterpart celebrate it in January and that they both give it the same name of Epiphany are the only common features to this festival.
The word epiphany comes from a Greek word, meaning manifestation or appearance and is used to celebrate the divine nature of Jesus.
However, whereas the Western Epiphany that takes place on 6th January commemorates the visit of the three Wise Men, the Magi, to a newborn Jesus, its Eastern namesake, as celebrated by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as Timket, focuses on an adult Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan by St John.
One of the oldest Eastern Orthodox Christian festivals, Timket, or T’imke’t, celebrated since the 2nd century CE, is a three day festival that culminates on 19th January (20th on leap years) by a night mass followed by a symbolic re-enactment of Jesus’ baptism in which members of the congregation take part eagerly and merrily.
Although all major towns organize Timket in a grand way, and the rituals are pretty similar from town to town, THE place to be on that occasion is Gondar. All the liturgy climaxes on the shore of large masses of water, man-made or natural, and nowhere in the country is a place better suited for the occasion and more atmospheric than the venerable Fasilides baths in Gondar.
These lay empty for most of the year, giving visitors access only to the ground floor of a three floor chapel erected at its centre. For Timket, the water of a nearby canal, itself fed by the river is allowed to flow in thanks to a network of ducts opening in one of the corners in the bath. After the festivities, the water is let out at the diagonally opposite corner. The inlet and outlet are clearly visible when the baths are empty.
The crux of day one of the festival is the formation of a large procession of the clergy in force and in full regalia, followed by lay people in their best festival attire.
The aim of the procession is to bring the Tabots from the inner sanctum of the many churches in town, all the way to the edge of the water so that a night long ritual can be followed and the water can be blessed the following morning. A Tabot is the replica in marble, alabaster or acacia wood, of one of the tablets of the law that Moses brought back from Mount Sinai. This tablet is itself kept in a replica of the Ark of covenant (confusingly also named Tabot), as described in the book of Exodus. Each church in Ethiopia contains a Tabot (similar to the Arabic word tabut, meaning chest). The Tabot is the heart of a church which cannot be consecrated as a church until one is present in its inner sanctum. Tabots are generally consecrated to a saint, the Virgin Mary or the Ethiopian Trinity.
For major festivals and particularly for Timket, the priests remove the Tabots from their special shrines, swaddle them into precious colourful cloths and carry them out of the church on their heads, holding onto the fabric on each side. This means that the priests carrying the Tabots look as if they were walking under an awning and they can only look forward, the fabric preventing any peripheral vision.
3 Day Festival
Ketera: each of the days of the festival has a name and a function. Friday is to ramp up fervour. The day begins awfully early at church with prayer, singing and, peculiar to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, ritual rhythms on instruments and ritual dancing.
Friday noontime: Everywhere the eye turns, people have replaced their modern, everyday clothes with traditional wear. Females are dressed in beautiful white cotton dresses, embellished by either delicate and richly colourful silk embroideries or intricate and equally colourful woven bands at the hems, cuffs, necks, front and back panels. Or they wear silky dresses in vibrant colours spangled and embroidered in gold or white cotton with woven bands in the colours of the Ethiopian flag at the hems and cuffs. In addition, no woman would go out without at least a shamma or two. A shamma is a long rectangle of fine woven cotton, decorated in a similar way to the dress they have on, and worn as a sash or belt around the waist, as a headpiece or head covering, as a mantilla over part of the hair bun and back or as a stole. In addition, women and girls have all had their hair plaited into striking styles with partings in many shapes, cornrows of various length and thicknesses, curly hair extensions and in many cases, a bun made of many very thinly plated strands of hair. Men wear similarly decorated white shirts or tunics over white trousers and wrap themselves in a thicker and larger rectangle of cotton (white for the occasion) called gabi. In addition, many very observant men will wear a white turban around their heads and carry a praying staff. a very long stick ending in something like a truncated cross or a little like the top of a Corinthians column and representing the two horns of the ram that was sacrificed by Abraham instead of his son Isaac.
Priests carrying the Tabots surrounded by their deacons, monks, choristers, lay readers and faithful all converge to a meeting point where the procession will start forming.
All this varigated sea of people first attended the many churches in town from very early in the morning. At around mid day, the Tabots come out of the churches and start converging towards an assembly point at the far side of town.
First come a few young men swinging incense smoking inside ornate silver holders. The incense is the resin of the Ethiopian frankincense tree; the same that was brought to baby Jesus by King Balthazar. Running back and forth just behind them are teams of young men unrolling short lengths of red carpet for the dignitaries to walk on, rolling them again once they have passed and running to the very front of the procession to unroll it again, repeating this until the procession reaches its destination… over a number of hours and kilometres.
Little by little, the procession makes its way towards the town centre, which in Gondar is called the Piassa. This is a largish square with, at its centre, a statue of Emperor Tewodros.
The crowds line the streets, wait eagerly on terraces and balconies or follow the procession. Despite the numbers, people are calm, happy and unthreatening.
First come two floats. The first represents the Tabernacle in the desert and / or the first Temple in Jerusalem, complete with a large gilded Ark of Covenant, the depiction of a wall and three young men dressed as Hebrew soldiers, a Pharaoh and possibly either a High Priest or Moses (white beard, long red tunic and jewelled breast plate).
The second float represents Ethiopia, decorated in greenery, with the source of the Nile and two young men representing Ethiopia’s roots and its belonging to Africa and also Ethiopia’s history and cultural kinship to a Semitic or Sabaen past.
Immediately following the float, come the incense holders after whom there walks a group of about 20 tall young Azmaris, proudly holding their Mesenkos. The Azmaris are hugely respected minstrels who volunteer to perform liturgical music during religious festivals and make their living by playing at weddings, other secular festivals, in traditional music houses or as backing musicians for Ethiopian pop stars. The Mesenko is their one string lute of biblical appearance with a slightly flat neck and a cubic body. They play this lute with a very curved bow and require great virtuosity to do so.
After them, the priests looking as if they had a tent upon their heads because they are carrying the Tabots, and followed by their deacons, walk in various ordered groups.
In between the groups come drummers holding huge conical kebero drums that look a little like djembes from afar. Brightly decorated in turquoise and red ochre, the kebero drum symbolises the “Body of God” and the principal teachings of the Ethiopian Christian Orthodox Church, that of God’s unity and the emergence of a New Testament out of the roots of the Old one. The drum has two sides: a small one played with the left hand and which produces a high pitched sound, representing the Old Testament, and a large side, struck with the right hand, representing the New Testament and giving out a loud deep sound. Each part of what is a very ancient African drum has been given a Christian meaning and symbolism. The ochre and blue design on the drum is in fact a cloth which represents Jesus’ shroud and is struck to the wooden body of the drum. The rope by which it is carried is meant to be the rope with which legends say Judah hung himself after his betrayal. The leather stripes keeping the goat skin drumming surfaces taut represent the whiplash suffered by Jesus during his flagellation. The drums can be huge or quite small but the rhythms they produce are quite intoxicating and contribute to the stirring up of the religious fervour of the crowd.
After the drums come other musicians blowing into shofar sounding, brass or sometimes silver ceremonial trumpets called malakat and long, slightly curved metallic flutes with no finger holes and producing only two (rather tuneless) notes called embilta. Towards the middle of the procession, the highest dignitaries, the archbishops and bishops take pride of place, surrounded by their attendants, some shading the venerable men under large, domed, sumptuous, golden fringed and embroidered umbrellas.
Also walking are various church groups of lay faithful, Sunday scholarship groups or aspirants, each in their various uniforms. Many soldiers in desert fatigues and boots and holding thick wooden canes are in attendance to keep peace and order.
At the baths, as soon as the Tabots reach the water, the priests perform a rythmical sort of dance by the water. The mass started the following morning at 2am. By 4am, the place was packed. The chapel, seemingly floating on the water, was illuminated and swaddled in banners in the green, saffron and red of the Ethiopian flag, its reflection in the dark mirror of the pool a soothing yet eerie sight.
The clergy stood at the far side of the pool. The right side held the Azmaris and the drummers, and three throne-like gilded seats for the Archbishop and Bishops. Various priests took it in turn to chant into a microphone, without interruption throughout the night.
As the first rays of daylight appeared, some 30 priests produced sistrums, i.e small, long handled bell like instruments and, swaying in rhythm to the chant, and with a flick of their wrists, they accompanied the chants with the cistrums in perfect unison and in perfect time with the kebero drums.
As dawn broke, tinting the pool and everything around in blue and gold, the three bishops rose from their seats and, holding huge ornate golden crosses, came to the very edge of the pool, bent very low and lowered their crosses until they touched the water while saying a prayer. This was then followed by the lowering of a golden holder of candles to make the water holy.
Some of the spoken as opposed to chanted prayers sounded strangely like the Kaddish. More prayers and the blessed and now consecrated waters had symbolically become the water of the Jordan River where Jesus was first baptized.
In the full light of the new day, by 8am, the clergy left in good order to form a procession to take the Tabots back to their respective churches.
That was the signal for many young men to start undressing and, as soon as the place was clear, for members of the congregation to move towards the water. As soon as the attending soldiers let them, they jumped into the water in their underwear, symbolically re-enacting the first baptism and started merrily to splash everyone about so that they too should have a few drops of blessed water on them. Those who could not or would not reach the water handed them empty bottles to be filled and taken home.
In town, people who had not gone to the baths were there to expect the return of the procession.
The rest of Saturday was dedicated to strolling, dancing, socializing and partying in the streets and public gardens. Some groups of young women had decided that each in their friendship group would wear the same dress and these made a huge visual impact in the crowds and allowed one to find the other easily. Anyone who wanted to dip into the water of the baths once the crowds had departed was then at leisure so to do over Saturday and Sunday.
Sunday, Archangel Michael Feast day, was a much quieter day. A family feasting day, people first attended a lengthy service and returned peacefully at lunchtime to their extended families, there to feast upon the huge number of goats, sheep , chickens (and in villages cows) that had been purchased during the previous week.
The Ethiopian Church and Clergy
The full name of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC). It has developed into a singular and pretty unique institution among the different branches of Christianity. Self-governing since 1955, it has a seat on the World Council of Churches.
Ge’ez is an ancient Semitic language that was spoken in Ethiopia during the Axumite empire period. Ge.’ez is still used for liturgical purposes in modern Ethiopia, in the same way as Latin, once the lingua Franca of Europe, continued to be used solely for liturgical purposes in Roman Catholic churches until Vatican II introduced mass in the vernacular of each country.
Tewahedo is a Ge’ez word meaning “being made one”. Unlike say the Roman Catholic Church which teaches the “two natures of Christ-divine and human”, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church teaches “miaphysitism”. It believes that the nature of Christ is a complete union of human and divine, without separation, yet without mixing.
It is often wrongly assumed that the EOTC teaches the monophysite nature of Christ, i.e. that Christ has one single nature in which Christ’s human nature is absorbed by his divine one, resulting in a single being. This is different from miaphysis where there is no absorption but union where each nature is preserved but without resulting in a distinct third nature.
The EOTC is also often erroneously called a Coptic Church. While it is largely derived from the Coptic (or Egyptian Church) it is at variance with the Coptic Church in a number of domains. For example, it differs from it by its belief in miaphysicism whereas the Coptic Church is a monophysic Church.
The EOTC was founded by Archbishop Frumentius in the 4th Century CE in Axum (in what is now the north of Ethiopia). It developed pretty much in isolation until the arrival of Portuguese Jesuits in the 15th Century. From the Old and the New testaments, the EOTC preserved rites and beliefs which stopped being used in other churches and has a much larger canon of books (81) than any other Church.
Notable among those practices left over from the Old Testament and pre-Babylonian Jewish practices are the manner of slaughtering animals and the avoidance of pork, the early circumcision of baby boys and various taboos relating to female menses.
For more information, please refer to the site https://www.ethiopianorthodox.org
As our hotel filled up with itinerant priests in the run up to Timket, we wondered why some appeared to be alone, some travelled with a much younger male or males who was/were obviously in attendance, while some were accompanied by what looked like complete families.
The short answer is that the Kahinat, the Ethiopian Orthodox Clergy in Amharic, is given a choice.
Aspiring priests (called deacons) live and study with their master, an ordained priest and serve both him and his congregation for a number of years before being allowed to apply for ordination.
Just before his ordination, a young deacon “must commit himself to celibacy or else get married. Divorce and remarriage result in a loss of ritual purity and loss of one’s ordination.”
Debleras is the name given to these priests who have lapsed or to individuals who have chosen not to enter priesthood despite having studied for it.
For more information on the subject, please refer to the interesting article at http://countrystudies.us/ethiopia/63.htm
Timket in Gondar dos and don’ts
Book your hotel way ahead of time and expect to pay a premium even on faranji (foreigner) prices for the week before Timket. If at all possible, pay the hotel bill upon reservation or before moving in, as some unscrupulous and greedy hoteliers will further inflate the bill during that time even with previously agreed tariffs.
Try to attend the baths before 4am for a standing place or 2am for a seat within the inner perimeter of the bath. If you arrive after 5am, you will probably have to join where the crowds mass all around the enclosure where you can hear the mass but not see it.
Book a Bajaj (tuk-tuk) or car to take you to the bath from your hotel in advance of the day. From our hotels near Piassa (city centre), we paid 50 birr because it was night time and a festival. The same trip during a weekday should not cost you more than 20 to 30 birr faranji price. Locals never pay more than 10 to go anywhere but prices vary sharply according to demand,inflation,the possible scarcity of fuel in town that day and both parties negotiating skills
Wear a jumper or layers: it can feel chilly just before dawn by the water.
Have a waterproof layer if you mind being wet when bathers start splashing water. Either that or stay away from the edge of the bath or leave as soon as the clergy does.
Take a camera and keep it firmly in your hand when not in use. Alternatively, place it in an inner zip pocket or a money belt .
Leave all other valuables, including any mobile phone that you are not using as a camera, travel documents and nearly all your money in your locked hotel room.
Be sure to answer calls of nature before leaving your hotel.
Be aware that if you wish to leave the perimeter of the bath once people have started jumping into the water, you will face crushes at the gates where people run a strong risk of being hurt if they fall and will likely be separated from their party. Take very good care if bringing children in particular or if you are prone to falling if pushed.
Take food or drink-even water- with you. The atmosphere is one of contemplation and people fast while praying. The noises or movements associated with unwrapping, eating and drinking become disruptive in this context.
Do not talk loudly, particularly if speaking a language other than Amharic. It would not do for tourists to disrupt our religious or other rites when we are in our own country. It is only courteous to refrain from doing it when we are abroad.
Take a bag or valuables with you. The crowds are enormous and occasions for loss, accidents or pick pocketing numerous; not so much during the night but in the crush to exit the perimeter of the bath the morning after. Any money you take for your return fare should preferably be kept in a zipped or buttoned up shirt pocket or in a money belt (not in trousers).
Eat or drink anything the day before that might cause you discomfort on the night. There are no facilities at the bath or in their vicinity, nowhere secluded and the crowds make any exit difficult.
Feel obliged to buy any of the candles, ribbons etc that are on offer. Likewise, only cover your head, wear white, a shamma or gabi or traditional costume if you feel like it. It may enhance your appreciation for the moment and many Ethiopian will appreciate it but it is in no way compulsory.