Timkat: Ethiopian Christians reenact baptism of Jesus with vibrant festival

Close-up of three dark-skinned men in elaborate religious robes and carrying ornate cloth umbrellas under sunny skies

Priests celebrate Timkat in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo by Andrew Heavens, courtesy of Flickr

FRIDAY, JANUARY 19: Rich, deep hues and velvet fabrics dot the landscape in Ethiopia during one of the grandest festivals of the year: Timkat, the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian ceremony commemorating the baptism of Jesus. As the countryside’s rolling hills are blooming with yellow spring flowers, pilgrims and priests dress in their finest clothing and form a procession that weaves through the rock-hewn churches and age-old passageways of Ethiopia. Central to the processions are models of the Ark of the Covenant (called tabots), carried by priests with caution and pride. To Ethiopian Christians, the tabot signifies the manifestation of Jesus as the Savior, when he came to the Jordan River to be baptized.

Did you know? Ethiopia is home to more UNESCO sites than any other country in Africa. In December 2013, the Demera festival of the Meskel holiday was registered as world intangible heritage by UNESCO; Ethiopia has since submitted study findings of three intangible cultural heritages to UNESCO for registration, one of which is Timket (Timkat).

Timkat events begin on Timkat eve, when the tabots are ceremoniously wrapped in cloth and carried by priests in a procession. In the earliest morning hours, while the sky is still dark, crowds gather near bodies of water to witness a blessing of the waters—a reenactment of the baptism of Christ. Crowds are sprinkled with water, and baptismal vows are renewed. When all rituals are complete, pilgrims return home for feasts and continued celebrations.

News organizations in the U.S. rarely cover Timkat, but reporters from the UK, India and Africa usually file stories. This year, the India-based Economic Times advises readers on the best spots in Ethiopia to visit for Timkat celebrations:


The Timkat Festival, an Orthodox Christian celebration of Epiphany, remembers the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. While Timkat is celebrated across the nation, the best place to attend the event is Lalibela, Gonder or Addis Ababa. The festival kick starts with a procession, during which the Tabots, models of the Ark of the Covenant, present on every Ethiopian altar are brought in from churches around Gondar. The Tabots are borne in procession, on the head of the priest, parading through the streets. The priests, escorted by drums and worshippers making merry, hold an overnight vigil until dawn. The services the following morning culminate in the priests blessing the waters of the historic Fasilides Bath. In Addis Ababa many tents are pitched in the grassy field at Jan Meda, to the northeast of the city centre.

Care to learn more?

If you have the Smithsonian channel available in your home, an episode of the Secrets series focuses on the Ark of the Covenant and includes a section on Ethiopia. Here is a link to watch an excerpt of that episode.

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