The Twelfth Day of Christmas in Ethiopia

15th January 2017

Swimming pools are something you might not associate with a religious festival. Mention the Twelfth Day of Christmas, and most Westerners will start humming and conjure up 12 drummers drumming rather than a swimming pool. But on Thursday the 19th January, the Fasiledes Bath in Gonder will be at the heart of one of Ethiopia’s most joyous and colourful festivals of the year –  Epiphany, or Timket as it’s known in Ethiopia.

Built by Emperor Fasiledes more than 350 years ago, the Fasiledes Bath in Gonder is no ordinary swimming pool. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site for one. It’s also longer than an Olympic swimming pool and has a three-storey bathing palace in the middle.  Unfortunately, for much of the year the bath now remains dry, but on Tir 11 (19th January by the Western calendar), just 12 days after Orthodox Christmas, the place is transformed. The pool is filled with water, and for this one day the tourists are replaced by thousands of local worshippers.

Timket, which literally means ‘baptism’, celebrates the baptisms performed by John the Baptist in the River Jordan some 2,000 years ago. The pools and the sprinkling of water over the faithful remind Ethiopian Orthodox Christians of their rebirth as forgiven sinners.

On Wednesday evening thousands of Christians in and around Gonder will finish work early and process from their home churches, all converging eventually on Fasiledes Bath. Services of prayer and thanksgiving interspersed with chanting and clapping will continue until the next morning. (For children it’s an exciting time: the chance to stay up and out the house all night!)

The highlight comes after the main early morning service, when the waters in the enormous pool have been blessed. Then enthusiastic worshippers can leap in and splash joyfully in the waters of the pool.Priests sprinkle water on those who can’t get to the pool.   In days gone by, they would’ve done this by hand, but today they use hosepipes.

The colour of the festival comes from the costumes worn by the priests and the dresses worn by the worshippers. The Amharic saying “if a dress is not fit for Timket, then it should be cut up” alludes to the fact that those attending the Timket festival should be seen wearing their very best. Locals will also tell you that this custom is the trigger for the start of many love affairs. There’s even a Timket tradition where boys throw lemons at the beautifully dressed girl they fancy: if the girl catches the lemon, it means she accepts the date!

 

Of course, the festival of Timket doesn’t only happen in Gonder. All over Ethiopia, people gather in their communities before parading together to the Tabot Maderiya where the local Timket service takes place. There are hundreds of different gatherings across Ethiopia: in Addis Ababa, Axum, Lalibela and other towns up and down the country. In some places, there may not be pools available and instead the priests will sprinkle water by hand, or else use hosepipes to spray the holy water.

Ethiopia may not have world-famous music or literary festivals, but their unique religious festivals more than make up for that.  Timket is truly a national religious holiday, and one that is spectacular to see.

If you would like to experience Timket in Ethiopia next year, we would love to help you arrange your visit. We organise small group tours to all four of Ethiopia’s most impressive religious festivals. Each tour is led by one of our exceptional local guides. Get in touch.

Richard Nerurkar

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