Meskel – the Finding of the True Cross
Meskel – The Finding of the True Cross – is both a religious festival, and a joyful celebration of the end of the long rainy season and the beginning of spring. On the 26 September, people in cities and small villages across Ethiopia gather to build community daisy-topped bonfires (Demera) to commemorate St Helena finding the cross on which Christ was crucified. For many Ethiopians, this is their favourite festival of the year.
In Addis Ababa the bonfire in Meskel Square towers above the crowd, and the lighting of it – by the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church – is a public spectacle. It’s preceded by colourful religious processions as large crowds light candles and sing.
St Helena is credited with having found the cross on which Christ was crucified in Jerusalem in 324 AD. In a dream, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine was told that if she lit a bonfire, the smoke would lead her to the cross. Meskel celebrates her success. It means ‘cross’ in Ge’ez, the ancient language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Addis is probably the most dramatic place in which to experience this Ethiopian orthodox Christian- festival, but you can enjoy the rituals, singing, dancing and feasting beneath red-yellow-and-green bunting in almost any town or village across the country.
Sunny yellow Meskel daisies crowd the fields and hillsides at this time of year, and in the days leading up to Meskel you see bunches of the bright flowers and fresh grass in the markets and along the roadsides. These are used to decorate both bonfires and homes for this important festival, and children carry and exchange bunches of them on the day.
The following day – which is officially Meskel – the faithful return to the sites of the bonfires and use the ash to mark a cross on their foreheads. It’s a day of eating and drinking, and you enjoy the feasting and tella (traditional Ethiopian beer) in a home that’s been especially decorated to mark the start of spring.
Meskel, Community Trekking and the Rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela
This is a sample tour o give you an idea of cost and how you could experience the Meskel celebrations, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, rural Ethiopian culture, and the country’s extraordinary wildlife in just 9 days. We can tailor it in any number of ways.
- 1 day experiencing the colourful Meskel processions and bonfire lighting in Addis’ Meskel Square
- 3 days of community trekking in the Lasta Massif outside Lalibela
- 3 days wandering through Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches and visiting Yemrehanne Kristos and the Asheton Maryam Monastery in the surrounding hills
- 2 days exploring Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s historic capital
Starting from £1,395 per person on double occupancy basis (excluding all flights)
Single supplement: £175
- All accommodation on B&B basis
- All airport and road transfers
- Entry fees and a local tour guides at all the historic sites and national parks
- An expert guide to accompany you throughout your tour
A few suggestions for tailoring your tour
- 4 days (3 nights) visiting the remote monasteries in the Gheralta Mountains in Tigray
- 1 night in Gonder + 3 days in the magnificent Simien Mountains National Park (2 nights in the Limalimo Lodge and 1 night camping)
Addis Ababa, Gonder, Axum and Lalibela are all great cities in which to witness Meskel and enjoy the festive atmosphere, and we organise special expert-led tour groups of no more than 12 people in each of these places.
If you’re travelling with teenagers or young children and want to experience a religious festival while you’re in Ethiopia, then this is probably the most appropriate. This is the one that Ethiopian children enjoy the most anyway!
When to go to experience Meskel
Although Meskel is on the 27th of September, the bonfires and main ceremonies take place on the 26th September, which is known as Demera. However, in the north, especially around Lalibela, Demera is in the early morning of the 27th
Our top tip for Meskel
“Meskel in Addis Ababa, Gonder or Axum is wonderful, but if you don’t enjoy crowds then one way to enjoy Meskel is from one of the community trekking camp sites along the Lasta Massif. Perched on the edge of the escarpment you overlook the bonfires of dozens of rural communities below. The fires glow in the pitch dark, looking like the stars that’ve fallen from the sky.”
Ethiopia: Through Writer’s Eyes is a rich and insightful read into the country by Ethiopian based translator Yves Stranger.
Flights to Ethiopia
What happens in an emergency?
Communicating in Ethiopia
Ethiopian time and dates
The weather and what to pack
Mobile phone coverage and Internet access in Ethiopia
Advice from locals
One of our guides reflects on why September is such a magical time to visit northern Ethiopia, and how the traditions around Ethiopia’s festivals enriched his childhood. Growing up in a country that is so different from the rest of the world is a blessing and a privilege. While most ...