The Ethiopian Festival of the True Cross or Meskel

Ethiopian religious leaders carrying crosses during the Meskel celebration (Ethiopiaonlinevisa.com)

September 27th this year marks another big Ethiopian celebration. An even bigger festival than Enkutatash the Ethiopian New Year, is the Meskel “True Cross” Celebration which takes place on September 27th or 28th in leap year. Meskel 2021 is on September 27th . The festival commemorates the discovery of the “True Cross” on which Jesus was crucified, and is held annually in Meskel Square in Addis Ababa.

The word “meskel” is from the Ge’ez language which translates to “cross.” The festival is basically a celebration of the finding of the cross. The festival is held at the iconic Meskel square in Addis Ababa and draws out a large number of religious and civil leaders as well as public figures and Christian faithful. Meskel has been celebrated in Ethiopia for more than 1,600 years as an outdoor religious festival and has been registered at UNESCO since December 2013 as an Intangible World Heritage.

Meskel celebration in Addis Ababa (Source: Wikipedia)

The legend goes that in 4BC, the Roman Empress Helena (Queen Eleni) was able to locate the important artifact in Jerusalem by using the smoke from a huge fire. The celebration is especially important to Ethiopians as it is alleged that a piece of the cross Helena discovered was brought to Ethiopia, and hidden away somewhere in the mountains of  Amba Geshen, which itself has a cross-shaped plan.

Ethiopians commemorate the find by building their own massive bonfire, the Meskel, which they decorate with yellow flowers known as Adey Abeba before burning. Ethiopia’s religious leaders lead colorful processions and prayer around the fire, and attendees intently watch to see which way the bonfire will collapse, as it is believed to predict the future.

As you can see, the month of September is a month of cultural and religious celebrations in Ethiopia.

The Timkat Festival or the Ethiopian Epiphany

Young girl attending the Timkat Festival (Carlos de Souza, AFP)
Young girl attending the Timkat Festival (Carlos de Souza, AFP)

Timkat festival
Timkat festival

Today, I would like to talk about the Timkat Festival, which is an Ethiopian celebration of Epiphany.  It is usually celebrated on 19 January or on 20 January on leap years (which is the 10th day of the Terr – Ethiopian calendar).  This festival celebrates the baptism of Jesus Christ on the Jordan river by John the Baptist.  It is particularly praised for its reenactment of the baptism.  Pilgrims come from around the country to celebrate the Epiphany, which lasts three (3) days.  During the ceremonies of Timkat, the Tabot, a model of the Ark of the Covenant, is reverently wrapped in rich cloth and borne in procession on the head of the most senior priest to a place near the river, where a special tent will be erected for it.  The Tabot represents the manifestation of Jesus as the Messiah when he came to the Jordan river for baptism; this holy relic is also said to hold the ten commandments as handed down to Moses by God on Mount Sinai.  The Divine Liturgy is celebrated near a stream or pool early in the morning (around 2 a.m.).  Then the nearby body of water is blessed towards dawn and sprinkled on the participants, some of whom enter the water and immerse themselves, symbolically renewing their baptismal vows.  It is a feast of celebration, and processional crosses of varying size and elaboration as well as various Ethiopian artifacts can be seen on the occasion.  Participants wear the traditional shamma, which is a thin, white cotton wrap worn like a toga and as headdress.  The best place to attend the event is in Lalibela, Gondar, or Addis Ababa.  The actual ark of the Covenant is said to be held in a place in northern Ethiopia, guarded by priests who have sworn never to leave the chapel grounds.

Here are photojournals from The Guardian, the Huffington Post, and the BBC on the Timkat Festival; my favorite one is from the Guardian.  Enjoy!!!