One of the most significant celebrations in the Ethiopian Christian calendar is the annual Timket festival. Deriving its name from the Amharic word for Epiphany, Timket is the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s celebration of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River. Although celebrated elsewhere in the Christian world, the festival is particularly vibrant and esteemed in Ethiopia, offering a window into the country’s particular brand of Christianity. Occurring every January, eleven days after the orthodox Christmas, the three-day festival centers around a tabot, a replica of the tablets found in the Ark of the Covenant. Many in Ethiopia believe that the actual Ark resides in the northern city of Axum, and thus copies of this artifact not only function as a religious item, but also as a potent symbol of the country’s longevity.
The festivities begin on Timket Eve, where the pious fast from dusk to dawn. Early in the afternoon priests embark from their church on a procession to the nearest body of water, transporting the tabot atop their heads. They are trailed by thousands of pious believers, chanting, drumming, and dancing in praise. As the day progresses, the procession is accompanied by a dimming skyline lending the journey a distinctively solemn atmosphere. With both the clergy and laymen draped in their finest the scene is spectacular, picturesque and unforgettable. Upon arrival, the tabot is housed in a tent and the clergy and many of the faithful spend a night-long vigil with the artifact. Before dawn a candle is floated out into the water and the body of water is blessed. When the ceremony is done, holy water is sprinkled upon the attendees and some adherents even go as far as submerging themselves completely, all part of a symbolic mass baptism for the year.
The Arks are then returned to their original resting places in a similarly vibrant fashion. The festivities are finally capped with feasts during Timket evening followed by games and other activities the next day. Although Timket is celebrated across Ethiopia, certain cites are particularly suitable for visitors. Gondar, with its cluster of medieval castles, is a scenic and historic spot for the festival. Another city is Axum, designated a UNESCO world heritage site and touted as the holder of the actual Ark of the Covenant. Lalibella is probably the best spot for the prospective tourist as it has a more adequate supply of suitable accommodations and its several rock-hewed churches provide a wonderful supplement to the scenes of the festival. Wherever in Ethiopia you choose to observe the celebration, the experience is certain to be unforgettable.