Timkat: Ethiopian Christians mark most magnificent festival of the year

White-clad priests line bank of body of water as onlookers watch ceremony for Timat (Epiphany) in Ethiopia

A Timkat ceremony in Gondar, Ethiopia. Photo by Terri O’Sullivan, courtesy of Flikckr

SUNDAY, JANUARY 19: The year’s richest and grandest festival takes place beneath the sunny skies of Ethiopia today, in the Christian ceremony of Timkat. Literally “baptism,” Timkat is the Ethiopian Orthodox celebration of the baptism of Jesus on the Jordan River. While an elaborate reenactment of the baptism is a significant aspect of the festival, colorful processions line the streets, as priests display Ethiopia’s pride—models of the Ark of the Covenant, the original of which Ethiopian Christians claim is kept safe in the Chapel of the Tablet in Aksum. (Get a photo “tour” of the festival at On Being.)

In Ethiopia’s dry season, the sun frequently shines upon centuries-old architecture during Timkat: grottos, rock-hewn churches and narrow stone passageways. Velvet-covered umbrellas, bobbing between buildings, dot the age-old landscape during Timkat.

Ceremonies begin in daylight, with several Tabots, or models of the Ark of the Covenant, being ceremonially wrapped in cloth and carried on the heads of priests in procession. In the early morning hours, at approximately 2 a.m., devotees gather near bodies of water to witness the blessing of the water; then some of the water is, afterward, sprinkled onto the gathered crowds. Several hours later, priests begin carrying the tabots back to their home sites: the churches. Clergy sing and dance, children play games and the mood is joyous. Upon the return of each tabot to its resting place, Christians feast with family and friends.

The mystery of the “Lost Ark” may never be fully resolved. (Read a story in USA Today.) Still, Ethiopia’s royal chronicle details the reign of the Queen of Sheba as a crucial event in the Ark’s history. According to the chronicle, the queen of Sheba traveled to Jerusalem to visit King Solomon, and on her way home, she bore a son of Solomon. Two decades later, the son returned to Jerusalem to visit Solomon, and his traveling companions stole the ark. The group arrived in Ethiopia, where Ethiopians believe the Ark still resides.

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