For the past three days, Ethiopian Christians have been celebrating Timkat, the most celebrated religious festival in the country. This Christian Orthodox holiday commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, providing the occasion for thousands of exuberant celebrations with processions, dances and singing.
The streets of Addis Ababa are festively decorated in green, red and yellow, the colours of the Ethiopian flag. Believers dressed in white gather from all quarters to celebrate the baptism festival Timkat by singing, dancing and drumming together. On the afternoon of 18 January, the actual celebrations begin with a procession to the river. Young people lead the procession, followed by priests in colourful robes. They carry replicas of the Ark of the Covenant of the Israelites on their heads (which, according to biblical stories, contained the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments) and bring them to the water.
According to a legend, Queen Saba, who ruled Ethiopia in the 10th century BC, travelled to Jerusalem, where she became pregnant by Solomon, King of Israel. She returned alone to Ethiopia, where Menelik I, the son of Saba and Solomon, first saw the light of day. At the age of 20, Menelik also set off for Jerusalem to be taught how to rule by his father. When Menelik travelled back to Ethiopia, a priest from his retinue is said to have brought with him the Ark of the Covenant, which has since been kept in Aksum, a city in northern Ethiopia. The models of the Ark of the Covenant, called “tabots”, are wrapped in silk cloth, just as the original one in Aksum: only a priest appointed for life may see the chest and its replicas uncovered.
Re-enactment of Jesus’ baptism as Timkat tradition
By the time people reach the river, it is already getting dark and most of them set off on their way home. However, some stay to sleep overnight, with only their white cloths for covers. Throughout the night, the priests keep watch over the tabots. Early the next morning, mass begins, during which church members preach and the water of the river is blessed. People jump into the river to renew their baptismal vows, and because the water is said to wash away their sings and give them strength. The re-enactment of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River is the most important part of the Timkat celebration. Afterwards, participants gather with their families and friends and continue celebrating with typical Ethiopian food, injera, doro wat, freshly roasted coffee and home-brewed beer.
The Timkat festival is also cause for celebration at the PROJECT-E Hospitality Institute. The institute is closed during the holidays, but the employees meet, also dressed in traditional garments, to spend the three days of the baptism festival together and to celebrate the Timkat traditions. The festivities traditionally come to an end on the third day (20 January), with another procession during which the tabots are brought back to the churches. Now a replica of the covenant chest adorns the altar in every Orthodox church until it is used again the following year on Timkat.