MESKEL FESTIVAL – A HIGHLIGHT IN THE ETHIOPIAN RELIGIOUS CALENDAR
(Posted 26th July 2019)
Meskel is an annual religious holiday in the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox churches, which commemorates the discovery of the True Cross by the Roman Empress Helena (Saint Helena) in the fourth century.
Meskel occurs on the 17th Meskerem in the Ethiopian calendar (September 27th of the Gregorian calendar or on 28th of September in leap years).
“Meskel” is also referred to as “Meskal” or “Mesqel” and there are various ways to translate from Ge’ez to Latin script.
The festival is known as Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in other Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant churches. The churches that follow the Gregorian calendar celebrate the feast yearly on September 14th.
The feast is held in Meskel Square, named after the festival, in the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Ababa.
Religious and civil leaders attend the celebration and public figures give speeches in which they reference biblical themes and stories.
Many Ethiopians who live in cities return to their villages to celebrate the national event at home as celebrations take place across the country, though the largest event is the one held in Addis Ababa.
The Meskel celebration includes the burning of a large bonfire, or Demera, based on the belief that Queen Eleni, as she is known, had a revelation in a dream. She was told that she should make a bonfire and that the smoke would show her where the true cross was buried. So she ordered the people of Jerusalem to bring wood and make a huge pile. After adding frankincense to it the bonfire was lit and the smoke rose high up to the sky and returned to the ground, exactly to the spot where the Cross had been buried, or so legend goes.
According to local traditions, this Demera-procession takes place in the early evening the day before Meskel or on the day itself. The firewood is decorated with daisies prior to the celebration. Charcoal from the remains of the fire is afterwards collected and used by the faithful to mark their foreheads with the shape of a cross similar to the tradition of Ash Wednesday.
One explanation for the high ranking this festival has in the orthodox church calendar is that it is believed that a part of the true Cross has been brought to Ethiopia from Egypt – just as the legend goes that the Ark too has been brough to Ethiopia where it remains buried at a secret place.
It is said to be kept at Amba Geshen which itself has a cross-shaped layout.
According to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the discovery of the True Cross is traditionally believed to have been in March, but the Festival of Meskel was moved to September to avoid holding the celebrations during Lent and also because the church commemorating the True Cross in Jerusalem was dedicated during September.
Ethiopian Holidays has arranged for packages available from departure points in Eastern Africa for the faithful to attend the celebrations.