Thursday, 6 October 2016

Timkat, Ethiopia

The crowd swells as  the Timkat Festival unfolds


The Timkat Festival is a highlight of any visit to Ethiopia. Celebrating the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, it is one of the most important religious events in the Ethiopian Orthodox calendar. 

It is celebrated throughout Ethiopia but the most special place to experience Timkat is in Lalibela with its ten 13th century rock carved churches. Each of the churches participates in what is an explosion of spontaneous religious fervour mixed with sheer exuberance.

Processions start from each of these churches, and converge like the meeting of rivers in spate. There are drums, horns, chanting, ululations, and dancing. Each procession is preceded by groups of young men waving their traditional wooden staffs and gyrating in circles as they move along.

The priests follow in their gorgeous vestments, holding vividly decorated umbrellas. Centre piece of each procession is the Tabot, wrapped in exotic fabrics. The Tabot is a replica of the Ark of the Covenant. According to tradition the original Ark is kept at Axum in the far north of the country.

Crowds of energetic men and women surround and follow the core of the procession. The sound is deafening and the excitement is extreme. Most of the Ethiopians are swathed in white fabric, and have a biblical look – until, that is, you see their mobile phones in operation. They are as keen as the tourists to capture the experience.

The procession proceeds to the Church of St George, the most iconic of the rock churches, in the shape of a cross, the Bete Ghiorgis is carved out of red granite from the top down so that only the summit protrudes above the surrounding countryside. Access to the church is down steep and slightly hair raising steps, along a narrow cut in the rock, and through a stretch of tunnel.

Once you clear the tunnel you are in a space surrounding the monolithic shape of the church. Colourful murals liven the atmosphere.

You can hear the drums and chanting throughout the night of Vigil. Ethiopia tours are for small groups of up to 20 or private groups of 4 or more.

Book your trip to Ethiopia especially for Timkat Festival with Blue Dot! Click here.

Map of Ethiopia

High priests carrying the church Tabots (A model of the Ark of the Covenant)

Deacons with black robes over their mostly white garments formed two parallel lines that converged and retreated from each other, and danced back and forth

Cross shaped pool where the baptism will take place every year

Ethiopian Orthodox Christian priests bless a cross shaped pool of water during Timkat

Ethiopian Orthodox Christians are showered with water, blessed by priests

Day 2 of our Timkat, we reach the special ground where the waters are blessed for the Baptism rites. The whole area was crowded, and locals waved lighted tapers as the priests began arriving in all their glory. Deacons in their white robes with red borders, and priests wearing black cloaks over their white robes, formed a perimeter around the open space. 

Then the hierarchy arrived in spectacular gear, armed with their umbrellas and beautiful crosses. Many of them wore crowns that have been used for centuries.
The Black Cloaks performed a slow, rhythmic, carefully choreographed dance to the slow hypnotic beat of drums. Meanwhile the deacons shook cestrums and swayed to the slow beat. Both groups made ritualistic gestures with their traditional staffs. It is fascinating to watch.

Finally, after sermons and speeches, the waters are blessed. The “font” is a large cross shaped above ground pool. As soon as the serious business is completed the hordes of young (and not so young) men rushed in to touch and splash the Holy Water. It quickly degenerated into a gigantic water fight. 

Timkat continues on for most of the day. Once the senior priests had recovered, they formed another procession that stopped for some time at the gates of our hotel before moving on.

Put Timkat, the celebration of the Epiphany, on your bucket list, you will not be disappointed.  This is just one of the many highlights of your Ethiopia trip.

Ethiopia tours are available for small groups of up to 20 or private groups of 4 or more.

Book your trip to Ethiopia especially for Timkat festival with Blue Dot! Click here.

A patriarch at the Timkat Festival

 Church hewn into the rock

Inside rock hewn church

Bet Amanuel (Emanuel Church) in Lalibela, Ethiopia

Bete Giorgis (St George Church), Lalibela, Ethiopia


  1. Will you still be proceeding with this trip in view of the unstable political situation in Ethiopia ?

    1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    2. Hi Sue, yes the tour is proceeding. I have had extensive conversations with our team on the ground. Happy to answer any questions you have. Regards, Brett