(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)
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.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.
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.