Celebrating Timkat Festival in Ethiopia

Posted on February 2, 2017 by

Timkat festival in Ethiopia is one of its kind. In today’s blog post, I share my experience (and tips) celebrating one of the biggest  religious festivals in Ethiopia.

timkat festival ethiopia

Hundreds of people – dressed as a sea of white – have gathered in the historic town of Gonder for the annual Timkat festival: Priests and deacons, bearing golden-rimmed silk robes and umbrellas, perform rollicking dances and songs. Accompanied by a slowly building tempo of traditional church drums, metal sistrum and pilgrims’ clapping, they lead the crowd in an immensely moving procession. It reminds me of scenes described in the Bible when the Israelis welcome Moses from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments.

Timkat is the Ethiopian Epiphany Day, a celebration of the baptism of Jesus Christ. Next to Genna or the Ethiopian Christmas, it’s the second most celebrated religious festival in Ethiopia. Even though I’m not a religious person, I’ve timed my trip to coincide with this major festival for a peek into Ethiopia’s spiritual side.

timkat festival ethiopia

Ethiopia’s Christian Roots

More than half of Ethiopia’s population are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians (a branch of Christianity that is unique to this country). Since the religion was introduced to the country in the 1st century AD, it’s been an important part of the Ethiopian identity. Over 40 million people in Ethiopia visit the church and practise their religious beliefs on a daily basis.

Because of the role that religion plays in Ethiopia, the country’s biggest festivals tend to be related to Christianity. They include Christmas, Easter and Epiphany. During these festivals, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians put on a colourful display of their culture and heritage through traditional costumes, song and dance.

timkat festival ethiopia

timkat festival ethiopia

It’s common practice for Ethiopians to adorn their best dress for these festivals, especially at Timkat, to represent new beginnings. As the Amharic saying goes, “Le Timket yalhoone semis yebetates” which translates to mean, “If you don’t wear the dress on Timkat, you might as well cut it up.”

As the Amharic saying goes, “Le Timket yalhoone semis yebetates” which translates to mean, “If you don’t wear the dress on Timkat, you might as well cut it up.”

timkat festival ethiopia

Gonder: The Best Place to Celebrate Timkat in Ethiopia

Timkat is widely celebrated across Ethiopia, but the biggest and most spectacular Timkat celebrations take place in the historic city of Gonder.

Often called the Camelot of Africa, Gonder is an ancient capital studded with royal palaces and castles bathed in blood and painted in gold. It was chosen by Emperor Fasiladahs in 1636 to be his capital for its strategic location, perched high at 2,133m above sea level and surrounded by precious natural resources. This was where Ethiopia thrived and flourished in the 16th century.

timkat festival ethiopia

During its heydays, Emperor Fasiladahs built a wealth of stately palaces, impressive castles, banquet halls, lavish gardens and a royal bath. Although the bath was used for swimming, it was more likely to have been built for religious celebrations, the likes of which still go on today.

Once a year, the bath is filled up for the Timkat festival, to replicate the baptism of Jesus Christ in Jordan River. It usually draws in more than 200,000 pilgrims from all over Ethiopia and beyond, but this year the crowd has thinned due to political issues that have plagued Gonder.

Timkat is widely celebrated across Ethiopia, but the biggest and most spectacular Timkat celebrations take place in the historic city of Gonder.

timkat festival ethiopia

The Eve of Timkat

On Ketera, the eve of Timkat (18 January every year), the tabot (a replica of the Ark of the Covenant) is removed from every major church in Gonder, then wrapped in rich cloth and silk and borne in procession on the head of the priest.

According to the Ethiopian epic Kebra Negast, the Ark of the Covenant was abducted from Jerusalem to Ethiopia during the first millennium BC. Since then, it has become the most sacred element of the Ethiopian orthodox church.

timkat festival ethiopia

timkat festival ethiopia

I arrive in Gonder’s city centre just in time to join in the procession. The atmosphere is raving and the air is filled with a celebratory mood. I’m surrounded by smiles and warm greetings from locals, who are more than happy to see foreign visitors in the crowd. As I become a part of the procession, I can’t help feeling extremely privileged to be here for this special occasion.

After a long and exhausting procession (covering more than 8km), the procession finally ends in 17th-century Fasiladas’ Bath before sunset. Under thousands of revered eyes, the Tabots are brought into the seclusive tower in front of the pool, surrounded by bonfire and candelight. That night, the priests and faithful will be participating in a vigil around the tabots.

timkat festival ethiopia

timkat festival ethiopia

Celebrating New Beginnings

The next morning (19 January), I awake at 5am and make my way back to the Fasilah’s Bath in the darkness of the early morning.

This time, gone are the celebratory singing and dancing. Pilgrims are now dressed completely in white, with scarves over their heads, and burning candles in hand. Amidst the darkness, the flame light up their faces of devotion.

Men have their heads bowed down, silently chanting their prayers, while women are down on their knees with their foreheads on the ground. The mass goes on all the way until 7am, when the sun has risen and daylight has come.

timkat festival ethiopia

Bathing in the Holy Water

Priests and deacons, and even the Archbishop, then slowly descend to the poolside in preparation for the big reenactment of Jesus Christ’s baptism. After several speeches by the important members of the church, the Archbishop proceeds to bless the bath water with his holy cross. The minute his cross touches the water, the pool becomes a riot of splashing water, shouts and laughter as a crowd of hundreds jumps in, symbolically renewing their baptismal vows.

timkat festival ethiopia

Despite the cold temperatures in the early morning, young boys and men aren’t afraid to dive into the chilly water. Even a few teenage girls are joining in the splashing festival. Hoses are also connected to the bath, allowing older pilgrims to spray one another with the holy water. I stand amidst the audience and hear locals shouting “This way! Spray the water on me!”. While tourists are hiding from the water, Ethiopians are more than excited to have this holy water splashed on them to receive their blessings.

The minute his cross touches the water, the pool becomes a riot of splashing water, shouts and laughter as a crowd of hundreds jumps in, symbolically renewing their baptismal vows.

timkat festival ethiopia

timkat festival ethiopia

Timkat Feasting

After the mayhem, most pilgrims head home to enjoy a massive Timkat feast with their families.

Injera, the ubiquitous Ethiopian flatbread which resembles a wide pancake, is an important part of the feast. Originally made from tef (indigenous Ethiopian cereal), injera has a tangy, bitter and even slightly sour flavor. Ethiopians usually eat the injera with their hands, and wrapping it around different types of spicy meat stews and colorful vegetable curries.

But the star of the Timkat feast is the famously doro wat, chicken cooked in a thick lava of pungent red berbere sauce (a powder made up of 16 spices). Doro wat is known as the Ethiopian national dish, and it’s often eaten on religious festivals (akin to the turkey in the western world).

timkat festival ethiopia

All that food is then washed down with some strong Ethiopian coffee. Ethiopia is considered the birthplace of coffee — it’s been an important staple here since the 10th century. Everywhere you go in Ethiopia, you’ll find coffee ceremonies on people’s lawn or restaurant’s entrance. The traditional serving of coffee often involves the use of a jebena, a clay coffee pot in which the coffee is boiled. A complete ceremony has three rounds of coffee (Abol, Tona and Bereka) and is accompanied by the burning of frankincense.

But the star of the show for Timkat is the famously spicy doro wat, chicken cooked in a thick lava of pungent red berbere sauce (a powder made up of 16 spices).

timkat festival ethiopia

The End of a Three-Day Festival

The festival does not end until the third day (20 January), dedicated to the Archangel Mikael. With processions that are no less magnificent than the previous two days, all of the tabots are carried back to their respective churches.

As the regalia disappears into the door of the church, the three-day Timkat festival finally comes to an end. For someone who has never had any religious faith, every bit of sound and action during the festival will not only engrave into my memory but also remind me the hope of life.

timkat festival ethiopia

Essential Information: Timkat Festival in Ethiopia

Timkat is definitely the best time to come to Ethiopia. Timkat celebrations always start on 18 January, the eve of Timkat, and ends on 20 January (except during leap years). Be sure to book your accommodation early as hotels get booked up in advance. Hotels also jack up their prices substantially during this period. I would recommend staying in Gonder city centre or near Fasiladah’s bath to be close to the action. My trip to Ethiopia was organised through Aone Ethiopia Tours who designed my itinerary around the Timkat celebrations.

Gonder is well known to be the best place for Timkat, but Lalibela and Addis Ababa are both places to celebrate Timkat. In Lalibela, the celebrations will take place all around the centuries-old rock-hewn churches. In Addis Ababa, the main Timkat celebrations are held at the horse racing track at Jan Meda Sports Ground, off Russia St.

Tips for Celebrating Timkat in Gonder

For those planning to be in Gonder for Timkat, make sure to arrive in the city before 1pm on 18 January as roads usually close around that time. The procession starts around 2pm in the city centre and arrives in Fasiladah’s bath around 5pm. The crowd usually hangs around for two hours or so, and devout pilgrims will continue to stay for vigils through the night.

On 19 January, I recommend going to Fasiladah’s bath at around 6am to attend mass and get a feel for the spiritual side of the festival. Foreign tourists get to enter the VIP area and sit on the temporarily constructed wooden grandstand for best views of the pool. Avoid bringing any valuables with you due to the massive crowds — just bring a white cloth or scarf to blend in, your camera and perhaps a waterproof bag as you will get wet!

How to Get to Gonder

Consider flying into Gonder if you are coming direct from Addis Ababa – public buses take two days to cover that route. I flew from Lalibela to Gonder which only took 30 minutes and cost around US$70 each way. It saved me from a long and treacherous drive (roads in Ethiopia are in terrible conditions).

>> Check for flights to Gonder

Disclaimer: My trip was made possible by Aone Ethiopia Tours but all opinions expressed are my own. To learn more about my trip and get some tips for Ethiopia, follow this link. 


About Nellie Huang

Nellie Huang is a professional travel writer and blogger with a special interest in off-grid destinations and adventure travel. Her mission is to visit every country in the world. In her quest, she's climbed an active volcano in Iceland, swam with sealions in the Galapagos, built a school in Tanzania, waddled with penguins in Antarctica, crossed into North Korea and drank beer in Palestine.

One Response to “Celebrating Timkat Festival in Ethiopia”

  1. same day agra tour by car February 6, 2017 8:05 am #

    So beautiful place and shared stunning photos of that cultural event.

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