Gondar is the place to be for many an Ethiopian and tourists when the three-day Festival of Timkat (or Timket, used interchangeably) arrives. This is the time for the faithful adherents of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church to display an aura of unshakable religious solemnities in the midst of pomp and joyful eagerness.
The spectacular sight of the colorfully-robed priests in their sanctified majesty and young men diving into Fasilides’ Bath in Gondar provides powerful statements of religious symbolism – symbolism rooted in the proud history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
And it serves as a reminder for other African peoples to fully embrace their origins, history, culture, religious beliefs and festivals.
Ethiopia is renowned for its cultural authenticity, pride and identity which has survived through the passage of time from the ancient times up to now. The endurance and survival of a potpourri of cultural traditions/customs and festivals serves as a unique referencing point with regards to African excellence.
The East African nation, which is the second most populous country in Africa, exudes a remarkable of sheer stoicism – given its not-so-rosy history and present, blighted with war, displacement, repression, famines, and perennial inequalities.
Yet it resolutely remains a bastion of Oriental Orthodoxy in the Christian world, being a reservoir of richly priceless religious and cultural traditions/practices. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is testament to this.
What is Timket or Epiphany?
Timket is a celebration of Epiphany in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church. The Festival, held on January 19 every year and 20 in a leap year as per the Ethiopian calendar, is one of the many Festivals in the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches providing much reprieve to the soul of the nation in a region where Orthodoxy is the largest religion. Timket corresponds to the 11th day of Terr in the Ge’ez calendar.
The central theme underpinning Timket is the baptism of Jesus Christ in the River Jordan. It symbolizes this baptism through ritual reenactment. Baptism signalled the commencement of Christ’s earthly ministry – the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ.
People travel to Ethiopia (particularly in the northern city of Gondar) to take part in Timkat – a religious festival filled with processions, singing, and dancing. This year’s Timkat was celebrated on Wednesday, January 19th, although under an ominous atmosphere of war and suffering. Gondar hosts the celebrations because of the Fasilides’ Bath, a 17th century pool.
In early Judaism, a golden-covered sacred box symbolizing the coming of the Messiah – known as the Ark of the Covenant – was kept in the holiest place of the Jewish Temple. Ethiopian Orthodox churches also have their own model of the Ark of the Covenant called a Tabot which they have closely preserved for centuries. The Tabot is present on every Ethiopian altar.
Because of its sacrosanct nature, the Tabot only leaves the church once a year; it leaves the church for Timkat. Tabots also symbolize the tablets on which the 10 commandments were inscribed and presented to Moses by God on Mount Sinai.
So, on the 18th, Tabots are taken from churches and wrapped in silk and rich cloth and since they are holy, only the most senior priest (or high priest) from each church carries the tabot on their head as they lead the procession to the river or the bath. Each high priest is adorned in rich, colorful robes, protected from the sun by special embroidered umbrellas.
The laity (ordinary members of a Christian religious community without the priestly responsibilities of ordained clergy) rarely see the tabot. This alone reflects how the Tabot – a manifestation of Jesus as the Messiah via baptism – is sacred. The priests and some other faithful participants keep vigil over the tabots during the night.
The second day of Timket – the 19th – marks the main celebrations of the festival. Mass or Divine Liturgy commences in the early hours of the morning on the 19th (around 2 a.m.) and continues around 7 a.m. Locals adorn themselves with white clothing and wrap their heads with scarves.
After Mass is finished, important church figures make some speech utterances and the water is blessed. The tabot is also dipped in the water. Here, the celebrations then reach their peak. Hundreds of boys and young men joyfully dive into the pool. By submerging the self in water, the renewal of baptism vows is completed. Others are sprinkled with the holy water. This climax underpins the central theme of Timket celebrations – the reenactment of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan.
After such reenactment is done, pilgrims and locals enjoy a special Timkat feast with their families and this usually includes Injera – an “Ethiopian flatbread that is filled with various meat and vegetables, and eaten with their hands”.
Coffee constitutes the main beverage of choice. Doro Wat – an Ethiopian spiced chicken dish – is also consumed during Timket.
January 20th marks the third and final day of Timket: the tabot is carried from the water back to the churches in a similar procession. And with this, Timkat comes to an end.
Why Timkat is special for Africa and the World
Timkat – a unique religious and cultural celebration – was registered on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2019.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is one of the oldest Christian communions/churches in the world as it originated long before European and Arabic colonial invasions. Ethiopia represents one of the first geographical regions in the world to convert to Christianity – and because of its distance from the orbit of the Roman Catholic Church, Martin Luther (pioneer of Protestant Reformation) considered the Church of Ethiopia as an “older, wiser, and black” sibling to white Christianity in Europe.
Ethiopia was introduced to Christianity immediately after Pentecost, as gleaned from reading the book of Acts in the New Testament. Acts 2:38 speaks of “Ethiopians present in Jerusalem” being able to decipher Saint Peter’s preaching.
Acts 8 provides an early account of Ethiopian presence in the realm of Christianity – and as such, Ethiopia was introduced to the faith by the Ethiopian eunuch who was baptized by the apostle Philip.
At a synodal/administrative level, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church was founded in the 4th century (328 AD) through Frumentius – the first bishop of the Church. It was established under the administration of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria until 1959 when it was granted autocephaly by Saint Pope Cyril VI of Alexandria, Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria.
Tewahedo is a Ge’ez word meaning “united as one”. Today, Ethiopian Orthodoxy is the largest Oriental Orthodox church, with a current membership of 36 million people – the majority who live in Ethiopia. 43% of the Christian in Ethiopia are of the Orthodox faith while 19% is Protestant.
Africans should take pride in their religious cultures
Timket should show Africans the salience of maintaining their religious and cultural pride – which is crucial to the realization of genuine African identities. Africans should not be ashamed of going back to the source, tracing the origins of their identity and properly celebrating such. Perhaps it would be prudent if Africans celebrated their own festivities and less of Western festivities.