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Epiphany and Timkat in Ethiopia: The City of Gondar Hosts Annual Epiphany Celebrations

(The following is a post by Fentahun Tiruneh, Area Specialist for Ethiopia and Eritrea, African Section, African and Middle Eastern Division.)

Timkat is the Ge’ez expression for the traditional celebration of Epiphany, commemorating the baptism of Jesus Christ in the hands of John the Baptist at River Jordan. Epiphany (Aster’eyo in Ge’ez) denotes the manifestation of the mystery of the Trinitarian God in which God the Father testified the sonship of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit revealed itself as a dove right at the Jordan River when Jesus was baptized. Timkat is also the religious practice that initiates a child to Christendom. Timkat celebration, held annually on the 19th of January, is primarily a function in the purview of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, a church possibly as old as Christianity itself. As indicated in the Bible, an Ethiopian eunuch was the first person to be baptized when he was on an official visit to Jerusalem. (Acts 8:26-40)

A colorful illustration of baptism on a manuscript.

The baptism of Jesus Christ in the hands of John the Baptist at the Jordan River. Detail of an image from undated “Geez Psalter.” African Section Manuscript Collection, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

Color baptism scene.

The baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch in the hands of St. Phillip. የኢትዮጵያ ኦርቶዶክስ ተዋሕዶ ቤተ ክርስቲያን ከልደተ ክርስቶስ እስከ 2000 ዓ ም። (“The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church from the Birth of Jesus to the Year 2000,” Addis Ababa, 2007) (African Section book collection, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.)

The first mystery of the Christian faith rests in and around Epiphany, which traditionally calls for grand annual celebrations among Christians in Ethiopia. The annual ceremony led by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Ethiopia on January 19 is a very colorful one. The whole city – especially areas along the path to the baptismal pool – is adorned with flags of Ethiopia. Adherents of the faith, especially women, wear clothes with green, yellow and red signifying the Ethiopian flag as the symbol of the rainbow, which in itself means the covenant between man and God. Timkat is a very colorful annual event in the city of Gondar (the capital city of Ethiopia from the early 17th to mid-19th century), a city known as the Camelot of Africa.  It is usually the choice of many tourists coming from within the country and from abroad to celebrate the annual festival of the Epiphany. Located in northwestern Ethiopia, Gondar is also known for its age-old castles, some dated back to the 17th century. Gondar draws important annual revenues from tourism, largely through the Timkat festival which is considered the single most passionately celebrated event in Ethiopia.

Black and white photo showing the Fasiladas Bath.

Fasiladas Bath, the pool where Timkat celebrations occur in Gondar. [1938] (Africana Postcard Collection, African Section, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.)

The Fasiladas Bath, where Timkat celebrations occur in Gondar, represents the Jordan River. At the Ketera marking the eve of the Timkat celebration, eight of the 44 Tabots of the Orthodox Tewahedo Church within the city flock towards the Bath from all directions. At the center of each parish church is the Tabot, the wooden slab believed to be a replica of the Ark of the Covenant. This is the holiest object that has to be carried on the head of the arch priest of the parish church with much reverence. The hymns of St. Yared and other religious songs, as well as worldly songs, accompanied by Eskista, traditional dances both religious and worldly, highlight the festive mood of the day. It is believed that if there is not enough festivity and songs, traditional hymns sung by Debteras (seasoned church educated elites) accompanied by sticks, hand sistra and elegant drums, the Tabot would exert pressure on the priest carrying it and force him to stop from walking farther. The parishioners of each church are dressed up in their finest traditional costumes; the boys and girls dress to their best, using the festival as an opportunity to find their mates. All eight major parishes converge at the pool, respectively resting the Tabot in a tent of their own until the next day when the actual celebration begins.

Photo showing priests blessing water in a pool.

The Orthodox clergy are seen in the foreground, the Patriarch with two other Bishops blessing the pool of water. የኢትዮጵያ ኦርቶዶክስ ተዋሕዶ ቤተ ክርስቲያን ከልደተ ክርስቶስ እስከ 2000 ዓ ም። (African Section book Collection. African Section, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.)

 

After Mass is served and the reading from the four Gospels is consummated, the blessing of the water in the pool takes place by the Abun, the Bishop of the city. At this instance the ceremony centers on the pool of water. The morrow then is filled with much jubilation and Elelta, ululation of the womenfolk. With this festivity, the Tabots, surrounded by the enthusiastic faithful, begin to return to their original parishes while more joyous moments are shared by the parishioners, dancing and singing to the best of their performance. This takes almost the whole day.

The pool water is important for several reasons. It symbolizes the importance of water baptism; it is also believed to be the source of healing through the blessings of the water by the ecclesiasts. As soon as the Abun and other high clergy bless the water in the pool with the cross, the youth jump into the pool and swim. Those who enter the pool help sprinkle the water on the faithful who are eagerly waiting aside for the showering of blessings. Many take the blessed water in containers for their sick relatives and to keep in their respective homes for protection and good luck.

The Library of Congress Ethiopian Collection contains many research resources on the topics of Epiphany and Timkat.  For the use of this collection or for reference assistance, please contact the African and Middle Eastern Reading Room at (202) 707-4188 or through Ask a Librarian.

7 Comments

  1. Kidane Alemayehu
    January 20, 2022 at 12:18 pm

    An excellent expose. Mr. Fentahun Tiruneh deserves our deepest appreciation and thanks.

    The only point that I wish were included in his remarks is the important need for the establishment of a commemoration (a church/monastery) at the location in Israel where the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized, a significant event which, as per the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewhedo Church’s tradition, occurred a few months after the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

  2. Petros Fentahun
    January 20, 2022 at 12:35 pm

    It’s interesting that every intricate step throughout what Jesus had to endure in his Journey had to be executed to completion in order for the world (in all its generations)to receive salvation by fulfilled acts required by God the father. John’s baptizing Lord Jesus allows for all to be renewed by the Holy Spirit. Happy timkat!!!!

  3. Meseretu Wondie.
    January 20, 2022 at 3:03 pm

    Well said ,thank you for sharing.

  4. Bekele Wolde
    January 21, 2022 at 4:29 pm

    Excellent reading,full of historical facts. It’s also very educational article. It also shows,how Ancient Ethiopia is as a nation of Christianity.

  5. Rebecca Alem
    January 31, 2022 at 1:32 am

    This description of Temket was a very much needed reminder of the spiritual renewing that this holiday honors. I have celebrated with family all my life, yet reading this just renewed the sense of wonder from this day that is easy to lose over time. Thank you for this.

  6. Karsten Bruun Qvist
    February 22, 2022 at 6:02 am

    Interesting to read about the Ethiopian eunuch that was baptized by Philip, but I am wondering what you mean when you say that he was the first person to be baptized, according to the bible?
    Surely, Jesus, and many others were baptized before that, according to the beginning of Mark?
    So, what is your criteria for saying that the Ethiopian eunuch was the first to be baptized, according to the bible?

  7. Fentahun
    March 8, 2022 at 8:51 am

    Dear Ms. Karsten,

    Thank you for reading the blog on Epiphany and Timkat in Ethiopia. Thank you also for the comment you made with regard to the Ethiopian eunuch. The passage references back to the Bible Act 8:26-40. For further reference assistance, please contact us via Ask a Librarian (//ask.loc.gov/africa-middle-east/)

    Thank you again for your participation.

    Fentahun Tiruneh
    Area Specialist, Ethiopian/Eritrean Collections African Section, Library of Congress

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