The festival of Timqat (Ethiopian Epiphany) is the biggest and most fascinating annual holiday celebration of the year in Ethiopia and registered recently by UNESCO as one of the world’s intangible heritages. It is observed on Tirr 11 (January 19) every year to commemorate the baptising of JESUS CHRIST by John the Baptist in the River Jordan.
Timqat is a three-day affair: Ketera on the eve of Timqat, the main festival of Timqat and Ca’ana, a day after the main festival. The word ‘Ketera’ is taken from the Amharic word, ‘Ketere’ meaning to make a dam, as it is usual to make a dam in some places where there is not enough river water for the celebration of Timqat.
On the afternoon of Ketera, the Tabots from each Church are taken to a significant water body. Accompanied by a great ceremony and carried overhead by a high
priest, each Tabot is taken to spend the night there. This helps in the enactment of the Timqat ceremony early in the morning, the time when CHRIST was baptized. The ritual ceremony extends moreover throughout the night.
Early in the morning, the Timqat celebration starts with the presun rise rituals, including the Kidan (The Covenant or Morning Prayer) and the Qidasie (the Liturgy/Mass).
These are followed by the blessing over the body of water. The word “baptism”, in the Greek language, further more refers to full immersion in water. Thus, CHRIST was baptised by immersing Himself in the River Jordan. Hence, Timqat by necessity involves immersion in a body of water.
But, in most cases, priests sprinkle the blessed water over the congregation, except in few cases where a larger pool is available to be immersed in or to swim like that of the baptismal pool in Gondar.
After these events, each Tabot begins the journey back to its respective Church. This involves an even more colourful ceremony with a variety of traditional and religious songs.
When the Tabot (the Ark) is taken out of the Maqdas, or Holy of holies, to a stream or any water body to spend the night there for Timqat (Epiphany), lay men may step into the interior of the Maqdas. But the laity are never allowed to enter the Maqdas at any time.
Astonishing brocade ceremonial clothes and carry decorated domed canopies, while chanting to the accompaniment of drums and the rhythmic clinks of the cestrum and other instruments. The group proceeding to each Church move in a slow or measured way, taking breaks at significant places before placing each Tabot back on its altar by late afternoon. The fascinating ritual ceremonies continue up to sunset in each Church compound even after the entrance of the Tabot.
This festival commemorates the first miracle of note which JESUS performed in His life on earth, when He converted the water into wine at a certain wedding ceremony at a particular place, called Ca’ana (after which the festival is named) in Israel (John ii. 1 – 11). The Church Fathers shifted the celebration date of this event to Tirr 12 (January 20) for two reasons. In the first place, Yekatit 23 sometimes falls during the Great Fast (Lent).
The second reason is that the miracle is performed with water; it was therefore decided to celebrate it with another festival commemorated with water, which is Timqat (Epiphany). The Tabots of the Archangel Michael, are also taken to nearby water bodies on ketera for Timqat also spending the night alongside the other Tabots, although special place is given to them. Then, spending one more night, they all return to their respective Churches, on the morrow of Timqat (on January 20).
The celebration started during the times of the Aksumite Kingdom in the sixth century by King Gabra Masqal. The celebration was limited within Churches during this time. It is believed that the festival used to be celebrated only one day, and within the Church compounds with the accompaniment of Tabots.
The tradition of placing Tabots in baptismal places was started during the time of King Lalibela. Even during this time, Timqat was a one-day affair. Tabots were taken out of Churches to baptismal places early in the morning and returned in the afternoon of the same day. The practice of spending the night on the baptismal places (larger water sources) is believed to have been started by the order of Abuna Takla Haymanot during the reign of Yikuno Amlak (1270- 1285) and intensified afterwards.
Particularly during the time of Emperor Za’ara-Ya’eqob (1434 – 1468), it was deliberated that the return of each Tabot at Timqat festival should be in another direction, different from the one it was carried out from the Church to the nearby water body. The root of this practice is associated with the return of the wise men who had travelled to Bethlehem (at the birth of JESUS CHRIST from St. Mary with a human nature) in order to present their gifts . Considering CHRIST’s coming as a human contender to his position, Herod was determined to persecute Him. Herod therefore requested the wise men to tell him where CHRIST was born and pretended that he, too, would like to present special gifts.
In fact, Herod intended to kill JESUS. As they understood his true desire, the wise men led Herod in another direction that took them away from Bethlehem in order to avoid his pressure.
Thus, in memory of this event, the Church declared that the return of each Tabot at Timqat festival should be in another direction, different from the one it was carried out from the Church to the nearby body of water.
Besides the above historic root, it is also believed that the return of each Tabot at Timqat festival in another direction helps that direction to be blessed. In some parts of the countryside, even the place where there is the body of water for the celebration of Timqat is chosen in different places in turn every year for the same purpose. However, these days, in many places, particularly in cities and towns, this tradition is forgotten.
Although it is colourfully celebrated throughout the country, Timqat is especially highly regarded in Gondar. The impressive neatly walled depression at a short distance out of the palace complex, supposed to have been constructed for the same purpose, and registered as one of the World Heritage site, together with other castles in Gondar, is still dedicated to the colourful ceremony of Timqat.
There are a number of issues that make Timqat in Gondar uniquely special.
Most of the churches in Gondar use the main baptismal pool for the celebration of Timqat. As part of his efforts in restoring the Orthodox faith, Emperor Fasiledes is believed to have constructed this neatly walled depression for the sign of rebaptism (or rather rededication) of those who were converted into Catholicism by the order of his father, Emperor Suseneyos.
Their gifts consisted of gold, incense, and myrrh and these items have special importance in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church interpretations. The gold: representing the Omni-benevolent and super natural nature of CHRIST. The incense symbolizing the authority of CHRIST over ordination and the myrrh refers to the bile that CHRIST was offered during the crucifixion.
This is also believed to have been the root for the coming back home of a bridegroom, at a wedding in another direction, different from the one he went to the bride’s house. Has been built on the spot where the prophecy was told to Fasiladas while hunting buffalo to establish his capital at Gondar. It consists of a vast rectangular depression, surrounded by a wall. Besides the baptising of JESUS, the celebration of Timqat in Gondar commemorates, therefore, also the rebaptizing or cleansing of thousands of people that converted from Catholicism back to the Orthodox faith.
There are three options for commemorating the baptism of CHRIST while celebrating Timqat, depending on the availability of water. The first option is to immerse one’s body three times if the water-body is large enough to do so. The second option is to collect water with three pipes from three directions (for three is considered as a holy number in Ethiopian Orthodox Church) and to pour it on individuals. The third option is to sprinkle water that has been blessed, unto the congregation. In the case of Gondar, the water is collected in the walled depression for Timqat celebration each year by a canal from the River Keha enabling at least some of the attendants to immerse and to go for a dip while priests usually sprinkle the blessed water over the congregation in other areas.
The Church also teaches that CHRIST chose the River Jordan for its symbolic value. The river flows from its source, divides and flows in two directions and the water that flows into two different directions re-joins after several kilometres. According to the interpretation of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the source of the River Jordan symbolizes Adam, being the first person created by GOD and became the source of human beings (according to the biblical stance of origins or
The division of the river into two, represents the division of human beings into believers and nonbelievers. Some Church references symbolize this division with the division of the Israelites, as both believers and heathens.
The re-joining of the water stands for the coming together of all by baptism. Some associate the filling of the depression with water by a canal from the River Keha for the Timqat celebration in Gondar and the flow of the same water after the celebration from the depression by another canal to join the same river: with
this very situation.
It is not clear when Timqat started to be celebrated at this spot, Dr. Richard Poncet, the French physician who came in 1698 to treat Emperor Iyasu II (1682 – 1706) attests to his having observed the celebration of Timqat at the same place. The two-storey castle at the centre of the depression, still serves to host the Tabots which come for Timqat celebration every year, and it was converted into a Church dedicated to St. Fasiladas, the martyr, during the reign of Solomon II (1769 – 1779). After the Sudanese Mahidists damaged part of the building, the Tabot stayed within a small building in the premises up until it was taken to Qeha Eyesus Church when the Italians made this place a recreational scene during their occupation (1936- 1941).
Even though the Tabot did not return, the space continued its former function of hosting Timqat Celebration after liberation, and the Tabots still spend the nights in the castle. Thus, while it is usual to set up tents for the Tabots for Timqat in other places, Tabots in Gondar which come to this scene for Timqat spend the nights in the castle.
According to the interpretation of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Ge’ez term Timqat takes its spiritual interpretation of its meaning from the Ge’ez word Asterio, meaning “reveal” (or manifest); the latter being then the precise Ethiopic translation of the Greek term “Epiphany”. This meaning is therefore associated with the revelation of the TRINITY or the unity of GOD the FATHER, the SON and the HOLY GHOST during the baptizing of CHRIST (St. John iii.13). A number of interpretations and practices can be observed at the celebration of Timqat to symbolise the mysterious events that occurred during CHRIST’s baptism or at other times.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church interprets that JESUS preferred to be baptised by water, as everybody, that is, those who would like to be baptised, could easily obtain it. On the other hand, the Church teaches that, like the Cross, which was known as a symbol of torture up until CHRIST was crucified upon it, water was also being associated with major disastrous events which happened before CHRIST was baptised thereby: this being chiefly exemplified by the great storm during the time of Noah and the flooding of the Egyptians by the Red Sea.
As it is stated in the Exodus (14: 21 -29), the Israelites were able to escape from the Pharaonic rule of the Egyptians when Moses divided the water of the Red Sea that allowed them to cross safely before the water flooded the Egyptians who were persecuting them.
It is said that according to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church interpretation, the canonical prayers convert the water of baptism to the blood and water of JESUS (and the water is called maye gebo; meaning blood and water from the ribs or side). This represents the Blood of CHRIST while He was speared during the crucifixion.
Furthermore, the Church gives an interpretation associated with a one eyed Roman soldier, named Linginos (Longinus). Linginos is believed to have hidden himself somewhere at the crucifixion of CHRIST for his sympathy not to participate in the weeping or crucifying. Later, believing that CHRIST was “dead”, he came and speared CHRIST and thereupon the Blood from CHRIST was sprinkled into his blind eye and cured him.
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