Gonder, a rather ordinary town in northern Ethiopia, turns exceptional during Timket festival. Celebrated usually on 19 January, Timket is the Ethiopian orthodox celebration of the Epiphany which reenacts symbolically Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. The festival traces back to the Ark of the Covenant – a sacred box containing the original stone tablets reporting the Ten Commandments dictated by God to the prophet Moses.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims that the Ark of the Convenant that disappeared from Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem in the wake of the Babylonian destruction of the town in the late 6th century BCE is now safely kept in Axum further north in the Ethiopian highlands. All Ethiopian churches hold preciously a replica of the Ark of the Convenant, named tabot, dedicated to a particular saint.
Tabots leave their home churches only during Timket celebration. On the Epiphany Eve, worshippers dress in white and go to their local church to accompany their tabot journey. The tabots are brought to a sacred pool and immersed in commemoration of Jesus’ baptism. Then devotees bath in the pool.
18 January – Epiphany Eve
Leaving Debre Berhan Selassie Church, I reach the devotees gathered near Piazza. Eight processions initiated in Gonder’s churches have merged there to head to the sacred pool located two kilometers outside the town. Tens of thousands of people are compacted in a long and slow cortege. The crowd perspires no sense of hurry or tension, but rather an overwhelming religious fervour and happiness.
Pushing and overtaking, I find my way to the core of the procession. Colourful cherubs mounted high on chars trumpet loudly to announce the clergy.
Here they are. The priests dressed in sumptuous ceremonial robes walk under embroidered umbrellas, wooden crosses in hand. The holy tabots are held above the head, covered with layers of rich fabrics.
The priest advance very slowly, as red carpets are deployed under their feet by a battalion of young devotees, who recuperate the rugs once the clergy has passed, to roll them and deroll them again ahead of the cortege.
Timket is not only ceremonial, but joyful as well. Away from the core of the procession, groups of devotees equipped with drums and trumpet dance spontaneously in the middle of the crowd. While many groups dance in a rather spontaneous manner, others present an elaborated choreography suggesting serious preparatory work.
The religious cortege heads meter by meter for several hours. As dusk approaches, the tabots are approaching the sacred pool where they will spend the night.
A priest reloads the censers with fresh frankincense. Timket celebration is to run the whole night and another two days. I take a break in Gonder’s religious marathon after a couple of bird views on the colourful procession.
19 January – Timket
My alarm clock rings early, too early in the wee hours of Timket day. The night is still in command. On the dark streets of Gonder, flocks of pilgrims converge already on the main street leading to the sacred pool. I run the two kilometers to the pool in a light pre-dawn jogging.
The place is called Fasiladas’ Bath, as it was built by the famous Ethiopian emperor in the 17th century. The body of water is supplied by a canal from the nearby river. The main building next to the sacred pool served as his secondary residence in Gonder. Tonight, it hosts the clergy vigiling the tabots brought from various Gonder’s churches the day before.
Thousands of devotees are gathered in a large and walled compound surrounding the sacred pool. Most of them have spent the night there, praying or sleeping a few hours in the middle of the night. Hundreds of VIPs seat already in the main tribune facing the rectangular bath. Hundreds additional candidates struggle to find their way there. Others have audaciously climbed up the high banyan trees overlooking the pool or sit on the top of the walled perimeter guarding the bath. They are temporarily dislodged, tree after tree, by the security personnel in an epic night battle.
I prefer moving around the pool and crisscrossing the crowd to capture ambiances. A liturgy is celebrated near a pool just outside the building hosting the tabots. Religious chants keep devotees awake.
Dawn is close now. Slim candels lit by the devotees provide fragile light spots highly welcomed by my photographic camera. Here, these four sisters shyly posing for me; there, female members of a church praying and waiting for dawn.
Early morning, the last sleepy pilgrims wake up to participate in the final round of the ceremony. Several hours are still to go until its completion.
At around 8 :00 am, a priest appears from the main building, a tabot in hand. After having retold the story of Jesus’ baptism, he blesses the water and leans down to dip in the tabot. Blessed water of the pool is sprinkled onto the pilgrims and religious vows are renewed. The intrepid pilgrims having climbed the banyan trees despite the security forces jumped into the pool with big splashes. Many others follow from all sides.
The tabots are then paraded back to their home church accompanied by singing and dancing. On my side, I return to my hotel, keen to enjoy a long nap. I am back in Fasiladas’ Bath in the afternoon. The atmosphere is less religious than leisure-oriented. The body of water looks pretty much like a normal pool populated essentially by children and teenagers.
Don’t worry, Timket is not over. The Epiphany festivities continue the following day.
20 January – Saint Michael Day
Why to celebrate another day since the tabots have returned their respective churches. Not all of them : those dedicated to Saint Michael spend traditionally an additional night in Fasilabas’ Bath, as the next day is dedicated to the eponym religious figure. In the afternoon, a very dense and colourful cortege reaches Piazza.
Despite the heat, the religious character of the festival fades in a maelstrom of exhuberant dancing and chanting imbued with an hilarious frenzy. Saint Michael is apparently an extravert and joyful figure in Gonder.
Leaving Piazza, I follow the flow of pilgrims who accompany the last tabots to their respective churches. The narrow medieval streets pressure the crowd into a slim lane. The stituation confines to stampede at times. Children close to suffocation are evacuated by helful hands from above the crowd. After an hour or so, I give up and rest in a corner, along with a handful of devotees.
My improvised companions adresse me a warm farewell smile before rejoining the melee. I aspire to calmer ambiances, if any. Tirelessly dancing and chanting, the cortege passes next the Royal Enclosure to head toward Mercato.
I take benefit of the relative calm shaping the surroundings of the Royal Enclosure to portray people in their festive outfits. In their early ages, male and female genders are equally photogenic. The draw does not survive adulthood. With no surprise, women are more visually attractive, dressed up in their finest and wearing intricate hairstyles. Some guys exhibit also very innovative and audacious haircuts, while missing the natural grace of their female counterparts.
I had an awesome time in Gonder during the Timket festival. When will you ?