January 19, 2022

Ethiopian Epiphany, centuries-old holiday, respite for polarized nation


The celebration begins on the eve of the main festival, on 18th January.

Avatar: Fahmi Jemal
By Fahmi Jemal

Ethiopian Epiphany, centuries-old holiday, respite for polarized nation
Camera Icon

Photo Credit : Priests leading the Timkat/Ketera procession in Awetu, Jimma. 18January, 2022

This year’s Timkat celebration, observed by thousands across the country, comes as an important unifying force in Ethiopia, as people from all religious sects join preparations for the holiday. Timkat, or Ethiopian Epiphany, a UNESCO registered holiday, kicked off yesterday, amidst a challenging time in the country’s history. 

The holiday, which falls on 19 January 2022, has deeply religious origins - the holiday commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ. Despite this, it has a history of being celebrated across cultures and religions; this year, Timkat takes place in the backdrop of the country's ongoing war and an ensuing polarized political setting.

“It’s a special day because it is part of our collective history,” said Nuru Abdu, a non-religious celebrant and resident of Jimma. “The holiday shows our mutual respect for each other’s traditions. I am excited to be here.”

For Nuru and many other residents of Jimma, Timkat represents an appreciation of cultural diversity, with people of varying ethnic and religious backgrounds coming together to observe this once-a-year holiday. 

The celebration begins on the eve of the main festival, on 18th January. According to the tradition, which dates back to the 4th Century, replicas of the Ark of the Covenant,  Tabots,  are taken from churches by a procession of priests to nearby rivers and pools in the early afternoon on the eve, locally known as Ketera

Priests and deacons, dressed in highly decorated clothes and holding crosses lead this procession with hundreds - thousands, in places like the city of Gondar - of people following suit.  The three-day affair ends when the Tabots make their return back to their respective churches in the two days that follow. The first night is marked by prayers followed by an early morning baptism ceremony where believers are anointed with water blessed by the priests. Residents of Jimma, which celebrate Timkat festival along with the rest of the country, have been cleaning and decorating for this widely celebrated event.

Part of this preparatory work is done by groups of youth volunteers who clean up city streets and decorate church areas and roads along the path of the procession with the Ethiopian flag.

Kidane Debebe, a volunteer at Jimma’s St. Urael Church has been working on decorating the baths where the baptism takes place in the city. But the credit also goes to many others in the community including respected elders of Geda, Kidane told Addis Zeybe. Geda is the indigenous democratic institution followed by the Oromo ethnic group, which make up the majority of residents in Jimma. However, the city, home to various other ethnic groups, celebrate this holiday showing this diversity in their distinct culture and performances. 

Across the country in the city of Dire Dawa, followers of the Islam religion were also partaking in the celebrations by providing food to the procession as reported by Addis Zeybe. 

In Addis Ababa, similar preparation took place in the days preceding the holiday, which is commonly observed by visiting relatives and exchanging well wishes. The deep roots of the holiday makes it widely regarded as a symbol of solidarity.