Lalibela, Ethiopia – the Orthodox Christian celebration of the Ethiopian Epiphany, the Timkat

So few people in the world have heard of Timkat and yet it is one of the most spectacular religious festivals in the world. It is also unique to Ethiopia, where the orthodox Christian festival of Epiphany is celebrated on 19 January, or 20 January during leap years. Timkat, which translates as ‘baptism’, celebrates the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. Ethiopians embrace this annually with a mass baptism at different waterfronts or sacred pools around the country, the top spots being Lalibela, Gondar, and Addis Ababa.

Most Ethiopians wear the traditional white clothes during the festival, draped with a traditional netela, or shawl, for the ceremony, and gather at the waterfront at dawn to watch the water be blessed by the priest, be sprinkled with it and then, in some cases, submerge themselves in it. Timkat is an aesthetically beautiful event to witness, a very spiritual one to take part in and an ancient tradition that is an honour to share. 

Lalibela is Ethiopia’s ‘cathedral’ for ordination as well as being Ethiopia’s most celebrated tourism and Timkat site. This spiritual hub is home to 11 churches hewn into the rock during the 13th century by King Lalibela, who had a vision of the Holy City of Jerusalem. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, during Timkat you will see that Lalibela is very much a living cultural site, because one in 10 of its 10,000 residents are priests. Procession, pilgrimage and prayer are what Lalibela is all about, not only during Timkat but all year round.

The Ark of the Covenant, which plays a central role during Timkat, is a golden wooden chest which contains two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. In Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, churches treasure replicas of this sacred artefact as well as those of the tablets, which are called tabots. These precious replicas are protected by priests throughout the year and brought out during Timkat. One of the aims of pilgrims is to get close to the tabot, because just being in proximity of it means that you are getting closer to God. During the Timkat ceremony, priests carry the tabots on their heads down to the waterfront. The tabots are always covered in an ornate fabric, though, because they are considered too sacred to be even gazed upon by mere mortals. 

The priests wear ceremonial robes during Timkat and are protected by colourful, embroidered umbrellas, as they are followed in a procession by thousands of pilgrims, singing, drumming, clapping and dancing. A more reverential moment follows, when the priest arrives at the waterfront or sacred lake, delivers prayers, blesses the water with his golden cross and then sprinkles the crowd with it. At this point the eruption of mass joy occurs once more, and kids traditionally jump into the water for fully immersive fun. Festivities continue for another day for many people, fuelled by a fair amount of local beer (tela) as well as dancing to traditional drums (kabero) to keep the energy going.