Timkat, an Ethiopian Epiphany celebration

The first week of January marks the time Ethiopians celebrate Timkat, or Epiphany, one of the most important holidays on the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian calendar. While this holiday is celebrated nationwide, the main event takes place at a huge open-air venue in the capital, Addis Ababa.

In 2005, a delegation from the Houston Museum of Natural Science had the privilege of participating in the celebrations. Ethiopia’s Patriarch, His Holiness Abune Paulos, presided over this very colorful event, during which he blessed the assembled masses as well as the tabots, or copies of the Ark of the Covenant, that were brought before him.

After a series of prayers, the Patriarch, accompanied by representatives of other Orthodox churches, dipped processional crosses in a large pool of water. Immediately after, this water is used to bless the gathered masses; the logistics involved are interesting and stand in stark contrast to the pomp and circumstance used in the proceedings up until then. Since the pool is located inside a fenced-off area, the Patriarch simply used a garden hose dipped into the pool to spray the blessed water onto as many people as possible. (See photo at left.)

After a brief pause of mediation and musical performances, the patriarch then proceeded to bless the priests who had gathered carrying their church’s tabots. By the time this takes place, the priests, dressed in very colorful outfits, have been patiently waiting for hours while supporting the tabot on top of their head. Once this blessing has occurred, the ceremony winds down and the thousands of faithful disperse.

Timkat is celebrated by Christians throughout the country. Places like Aksum, the seat of Ethiopia’s Christian community and Lalibela, home to the famous rock-hewn churches, are also bustling with pilgrims during Timkat. The continuation of these century-old celebrations is yet another example of what Ethiopians call “living history.”

The Ark of the Covenant and Aksum

A focus of longstanding attention by Christians, a topic of Hollywood movies as well as countless books, TV programs, internet blogs and a chapel in Aksum: all of these have one thing in common: the Ark of the Covenant.

It is still a strongly held belief that King Menelik I: , son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, brought the Ark from Jerusalem to Ethiopia. The Ark allegedly spent the next 600 years on the island of Tana Cherqos in Lake Tana. Eventually it was moved to Aksum, where it is said to reside in a small chapel, near Maryam Seyon, the main cathedral for all Ethiopian Orthodox Christians.

A priest acts as caretaker. The closest the faithful get to seeing the Ark is in the ceremonies during which their church’s tabot – drawer or box said to contain copies of the Ten Commandments – is brought out. However, even then, it is difficult to discern any details, as these tabots are usually wrapped in richly embroidered cloth. Even the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church does not get to see the Ark in Aksum. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for very few people indeed.