Timket (Epiphany) is the biggest religious festival in Ethiopia with deep prayer and wild celebration. While Christmas is a family affair celebrated at home, Timket is definitely very public and Gondar has the most atmospheric Timket celebration in the country, centred around the venerable Fasilidas baths. The 3 day festival started with a parade of floats including one of the Ark of the Covenant – Ethiopia claims to have the original in a church in Axum, while every other Ethiopian church keeps a copy of both the Ark and its contents, Moses’ tablet of the law, called a tabot. Following the floats were priests and followers in their white emroidered robes, all dancing, drumming and singing. Also running around the town centre were lots of very young churchgoers, aged 10-16, all shouting chants and waving sticks wildly. If we had seen that anywhere else in the world, we would have been struck with fear, but here the joy was almost tangible.
We decided to make the most of our stay and witness the most famous event of the festival, the all night prayers at Emperor Fasilidas historic baths, which at this one point in the year are filled with water from a river. We arrived at 4am for a ringside seat to what was a moving and remarkable occasion. The atmosphere of contemplation was palpable and the chanting which went on throughout the night was hypnotic and beautiful as the priests swayed to the melody. At around 8am, the priests blessed the water with their crosses and hundreds of people then jumped in for a kind of baptism in the “holy water”. The scenes were amazing. We got soaked by the swimmers who kindly wanted to make sure that everyone would benefit from the water. Getting out of the baths was more than a little scary as thousands of latecomers tried to get in at the same time. We focused on staying on our feet as we would surely have been trampled had we fallen. We were so relieved to have come away unscathed and we were so exhausted but exhilarated by the whole event. It was one of those occasions we are completely thrilled to have experienced but at the same time one we would never repeat!
A more detailed account of our experience with a history of the festival and of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is here.