About This Festival
Timkat, which means “baptism” in Amharic, is the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church’s celebration of Epiphany*, which represents the baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. The Timkat celebration in Gondar is considered the most colorful, vibrant festival of the year.
While the Epiphany is celebrated all over the world, Timkat (also spelled Timket, or Timqat) is unique in its approach. On the eve of Timkat, the tabots, or sacred replicas of the Ark of the Covenant (containing the Ten Commandments), are wrapped in luxurious cloth and placed on the head of a priest to be carried out of the church in procession with the clergy. The pilgrimage ends just outside of the city at Fasilides’ Bath, whereupon a Divine Liturgy is celebrated around 2am.
As the vigil winds down and the sun begins to rise, the greater congregation files into the grounds around Fasilides’ Bath. It’s a truly moving sight to see the golden sunlight illuminate the 17th century stone structure, the faithful, dressed in traditional white robes, or shamma, gathered around the pool, the light reflecting off the water. At this point, the water is blessed and sprinkled upon the faithful. What happens next is what this religious celebration is perhaps best known for: some of the more devout (and perhaps more adventurous) attendees enter the water and submerge themselves, creating a ritual reenactment of the baptism of Jesus, as well as a symbolic renewal of their own baptism.
The crowd of celebrants—clergy in their ceremonial robes, holding colorful liturgical parasols overhead, congregants in all white, children in crowns and colorful clothes, skipping along to keep up, and curious onlookers—create a vibrant parade through the streets of Gondar as they sing and dance their way back to the church to return the tabots. Later, locals retire to their homes for feasting.
[*Editor’s Note: Epiphany celebrations vary. Eastern Orthodox Christians know the Epiphany as the baptism of Jesus Christ, whereas Western Christians celebrate the Epiphany as the recognition of the divinity of Christ by the Magi.]