ETHIOPIA’S MESKEL FESTIVAL – AN INSIGHT BY TAMARA BRITTEN OF WWW.EXCLUSIVEETHIOPIA.COM
(Posted 07th August 2020)
(All pictures credited to Tamara Britten)
The Ethiopian calendar is filled with festivals of extraordinary vitality and spirituality, when Ethiopians around the country celebrate events from the early days of Christianity.
While most countries use the Gregorian calendar, Ethiopia adheres to the Julian calendar. Thus the Ethiopian calendar is seven years behind that of most western countries, and the Ethiopian year has 13 months: 12 months of 30 days and one month of five days.
Genna, Christmas in the Julian calendar, is celebrated on 7th January in the Gregorian calendar. Genna comes from Gennana, meaning imminent, and refers to the coming of Christ to free mankind from sin. Ethiopian families get together on this day and celebrate by eating together and praying together. Priests and deacons traditionally fast for 40 days before Christmas, while most Ethiopians fast on the day of Christmas Eve. On the day of Genna, people dress in their traditional white robes and attend mass, processing through the streets towards the churches from as early as 4am. Later in the day, youths play a game like hockey, thought to have been played by the shepherds on the night of Christ’s birth, as well as a game played on horseback with some similarities to polo.
By a strange coincidence, King Lalibela was also born on this date, a millennia or so later. At his birth, a swarm of bees surrounded him, by which his mother knew he was to become the Emperor of Ethiopia. While he was emperor, rumours reached his ears that Ethiopians travelling to Jerusalem for worship were being killed. Horrified by the news, he vowed to build a new Jerusalem in Ethiopia. The result of this is most famous site in Ethiopia, visited and loved by Ethiopians and visitors alike. The town, originally called Adefa, then Roha, is now named Lalibela after the king. Its famed churches, cut from rock and linked by tunnels, are named after saints. The most famous, Bet Giyorgis or St George, is a symmetrical cross cut into a stark slab of rock, and is Ethiopia’s most cherished site.
The fortuitous union of the birth of Christ and of King Lalibela means Genna is celebrated with particular enthusiasm in Lalibela. The remarkable rock-hewn churches provide a dramatic backdrop for processions of white-clad worshipers, and watching the festival there is an experience visitors never forget.
Later the same month, on 19th and 20th January in the Gregorian calendar, is the celebration of Timkat, otherwise known as Epiphany. Commemorating the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan, the festival is one of the biggest in the Ethiopian calendar. According to Ethiopian tradition, the Ark of the Covenant holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments is held at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum. The Ark was brought to Ethiopia around 3,000 years ago by Emperor Menelik, son of Ethiopia’s Queen of Sheba and Israel’s King Solomon, who seized it from his father’s palace on a visit to Jerusalem. While the true Ark of the Covenant remains shrouded from all eyes, every church in Ethiopia has a replica of the Ark of the Covenant.
On the first day of Timket, all replica Arks of the Covenant are taken from the churches and paraded through the streets. At nearby rivers, they’re baptised in memory of the baptism of Christ. For the remainder of the three-day festival, processions of people dressed in white stream through towns and villages all over the country. While the celebration is flamboyant in Addis Ababa and around the north of the country, for a truly unique experience, head to the ancient castles of Gondar where celebrants plunge into Fasilidas’ Pool in commemoration of baptism.
Enkutatash, Ethiopian new year, is celebrated on 11th September in the Gregorian calendar. According to legend, Ethiopia’s Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon of the Old Testament in Jerusalem. When she left his palace she was bearing his child: the boy who would later become Emperor Menelik of Ethiopia, founder of the Solomonic dynasty of emperors and pilferer of the Ark of the Covenant. Enkutatash, held on the date on which the pregnant Queen of Sheba arrived back in Ethiopia, means gift of jewels and refers to the huge number of jewels bestowed on the Queen of Sheba on her return home. While this festival is celebrated all over the country with parties and revelry, an unusual yet entertaining place to spend it is Mekele. This town, gateway to the searing Afar Region and the vivid Danakil Depression, has cobbled streets filled with cafes and bars. On the night of new year, the centre of town becomes a car-free zone; music blares from the windows of all houses while people dance in the streets.
Meskel, or the Finding of the True Cross, is held on 27th September of the Gregorian calendar. The story behind the festival starts with Queen Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, in the 4th century. God came to the queen in a dream and directed her to light a fire then follow its smoke. On waking, she ordered the people of Jerusalem to light a huge bonfire; the smoke led her to the site where the True Cross was buried in the ground. The festival is celebrated all over Ethiopia but nowhere is it more spectacular than in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. Processions of people in white robes and religious garments flood through Addis towards Meskel Square, with singing and dancing aplenty. At dusk, when it seems the whole of the population of Addis has congregated in the square, a bonfire is lit. Everyone in the crowd lights a flare and Meskel Square dances with a host of tiny flickering flames.