This year, on Timkat eve, I watched the Tabot from my local church in Addis Ababa as it was paraded the 4 kilometres from the church – Yesus – behind the French Embassy, to the Jan Meda – the old Imperial racing fields. It was a colourful and joyful procession, with everyone very happy to see us enjoying their pageant.
The Tabot’s nearest equivalent is the tabernacle and is a replica of the tablets of stone, and is carried shrouded in brocaded cloth on the head of a senior priest underneath a colourfully decorated umbrella. It forms the central part of the parade, alongside icons and other beautifully dressed priests also with more colourful umbrellas. The priests are led by deacons all dressed in white playing the wonderful big drums, and choir groups from the church singing the Tabot down the hill. Others lay out a red carpet before the Tabot, a sign of the importance attached to theTabot. As it passes people prostrate themselves before the tabot kissing the ground.
Timkat is the festival which celebrates the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River, and is one of Ethiopia’s most important religious festivals. The word Timkat means baptism, but it is often confusingly translated as Ethiopian Epiphany. For more information on this see the page on festivals on our website.
Jan Meda becomes the centre of Addis Ababa over the Timkat holiday as more than a dozen Tabots converge on the walled field to spend the night there. On Timkat morning mass is said and then the blessed holy water in the baths at the centre of the filed are sprayed on the ecstatic congregation that is gathered around. Many also seek to fill bottles with this holy water to cure any number of ailments.
Then the Tabots are paraded back up to their churches again accompanied by the parishioners. Only one Tabot remains for a second night – that of Mikael, whose annual saints day is the following day – a day that also celebrates the wedding at Canaa – Kanna Zegelila in the Ethiopian Church. The Mikael Tabots are then paraded back up on their special saint’s day with even larger crowds of followers.
It is a joyful and happy three days, and one I would urge people to see. Tourists flock to the traditional historical centres: Lalibela, Gondar and Axum, resulting in overcrowding, shortage of rooms, high prices etc, but it is a wonderful sight in Addis Ababa, or at the Tesfa community sites sharing the day with the local villagers.