Timkat (Timqat)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Orthodox Christian)
Date of Observation: January 19
Where Celebrated: Ethiopia
Symbols and Customs: Guks, Mass Baptism, Tabot
Related Holidays: Epiphany, Ganna


Timkat is celebrated in Ethiopia by Orthodox Christians. The word Christian refers to a follower of Christ, which is a title derived from the Greek word meaning Messiah or Anointed One. The Christ of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, a man born between 7 and 4 B . C . E . in the region of Palestine. According to Christian teaching, Jesus was killed by Roman authorities using a form of execution called crucifixion (a term meaning he was nailed to a cross and hung from it until he died) in about the year 30 C . E . After his death, he rose back to life. His death and resurrection provide a way by which people can be reconciled with God. In remembrance of Jesus's death and resurrection, the cross serves as a fundamental symbol in Christianity. With nearly two billion believers in countries around the globe, Christianity is the largest of the world's religions. There is no one central authority for all of Christianity. The pope (the bishop of Rome) is the authority for the Roman Catholic Church, but other sects look to other authorities. Orthodox communities look to patriarchs and emphasize doctrinal agreement and traditional practice. Protestant communities focus on individual conscience. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are often referred to as the Western Church, while the Orthodox churches may also be called the Eastern Church. All three main branches of Christianity acknowledge the authority of Christian scriptures, a compilation of writings assembled into a document called the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation vary among the different Christian sects. Just as EPIPHANY is observed twelve days after CHRISTMAS (December 25), Timkat, the Ethiopian celebration of Epiphany, occurs twelve days after GANNA, the Ethiopian Christmas (January 7). Christianity was established in Ethiopia in the fourth century, when a Christian from Syria named Frumentius traveled there and influenced the local ruler. At the time, Christianity in Syria was under the domain of the Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt. Thus, so was the new church in Ethiopia until 1959, when the Ethiopian Orthodox Church separated from the Coptic Church of Egypt. Timkat commemorates the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan and is celebrated in a unique manner. Timkat focuses on the Ark of the Covenant, the wooden chest containing the tablets on which the Ten Commandments or laws of the ancient Israelites are inscribed. Although no one is really certain what became of the original Ark, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has largely based its identity on the fact that it resides in the holy city of Aksum (Axum), where it is housed in a special chapel next to the Church of Saint Mary of Zion and watched over day and night by a single guard who is both a monk and a virgin. Every Orthodox church in Ethiopia, however, has a TABOT or sacred replica of the Ark, which is taken out on the eve of Timkat by the priests and villagers and carried to a tent that has been erected near a stream or pool. The procession that accompanies the TABOT is a particularly colorful one, with all the villagers dressed in white and the priests wearing brightly colored satin robes and carrying velvet umbrellas studded with sequins. The TABOT remains in the tent throughout the night, while Orthodox Christians gather around it to sing, dance, and pray. A mass is held at 2:00 a.m., and people hold picnics by the dim light of oil lamps, drinking the Ethiopian beer that they have brewed especially for this holiday.

At dawn, the priest takes a ceremonial golden cross, dips it in the water, and uses it to extinguish a candle that sits on the makeshift altar or on a pole in the river. After this, he sprinkles water over the faithful who have gathered to commemorate the baptism of Christ. At this point it is not uncommon for people to start jumping into the water fully clothed, even though the water is often very cold (see MASS BAPTISM ). After this, the TABOT is carried in procession back to the church, accompanied by the sound of bells, drums, trumpets, and singing. January 20 is the feast of the Archangel Michael, a popular saint in Ethiopia, which gives everyone an excuse to extend the celebration for another day.

One of the best places to witness the observance of Timkat is in the isolated northern mountain town of Lalibela, which is named after the king who ruled the country from 1167 to 1207. The town has eleven churches carved out of a single rock formation that date back to the period when Christianity first flourished in Ethiopia. According to legend, King Lalibela's stonemasons built the churches- some of which are four stories high-with the help of angels over a twenty-fouryear period. Like churches elsewhere in the country, each contains a TABOT that is carried out in procession during Timkat.



One of the most popular pastimes during Timkat is playing the national sport known as guks, which consists of "warriors" pursuing each other on horseback Timkat

and hurling bamboo lances. The game takes place in an open field, and the players, who are organized in teams, wear white uniforms with capes and headdresses that resemble a lion's mane. They protect themselves against the blows of their opponents with shields made from animal hides -usually hippopotamus.

The game has its roots in actual warfare techniques, back in the days when Ethiopians pursued their enemies on horseback and relied on speed and accuracy with a javelin rather than armor and sophisticated weapons to avoid injury.

Mass Baptism

The custom of jumping into the water on Timkat is symbolic of Jesus' baptism in the River Jordan. Ethiopian Christians believe that when they immerse themselves in the water they are "born again" into the Christian faith, and some believe that the waters cure infertility and other ills.


The term "tabot" seems to refer not just to the Ark-the acacia wood box that the Lord told Moses to build (Exodus 25:10) to house the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written-but also to the sacred tablets themselves. In Ethiopian Orthodox churches, these tablets are usually made out of wood or stone, and laypeople are never allowed to actually look at them. On Timkat they are covered by several layers of richly decorated fabric before being carried in procession to the tent that has been set up for them.

What happened to the original Ark? It was given a special room, called the "Holy of Holies," in the Temple that Solomon built in Jerusalem, but when the city was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C . E ., the Ark disappeared in the chaos. The Ethiopians aren't the only ones who claim to have the true Ark in their possession, but it is this belief that gives the replicas found in all their churches so much power and authority.


Harper, Howard V. Days and Customs of All Faiths. 1957. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Ickis, Marguerite. The Book of Festivals and Holidays the World Over. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1970. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.


PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) www.pbs.org/wonders/Episodes/Epi4/4_cultr2.htm

Timqat (Timkat)

January 19-20
Because the Ethiopian Christmas, called Ganna, falls on January 7, Epiphany (Timqat) is celebrated on January 19. Timqat celebrates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. It begins at sunset on Epiphany Eve, when people dress in white and go to their local church. From the church they form a procession with the tabot, or holy ark, in which the ancient Israelites put the Tablets of the Law, or Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. Ethiopians do not believe it was lost, but that it is now preserved in the Cathedral of Axum in Ethiopia (each Ethiopian Orthodox church has a blessed replica of the tabot as well). They accompany it to a lake, stream, or pond. It is placed in a tent, where it is guarded all night while the clergy and villagers sing, dance, and eat until the baptismal service the following morning. At dawn the clergy bless the water and sprinkle it on the heads of those who wish to renew their Christian vows. Then the procession, again bearing the tabot, returns to the church. The festivities continue until the following day, January 20 or the Feast of St. Michael.
Ethiopian religious processions are characterized by the priests' richly colored ceremonial robes, fringed, embroidered umbrellas, and elaborately decorated crosses. The national sport of guks is often played at Timqat. Warriors with shields of hippopotamus hide, wearing lion-mane capes and headdresses ride on caparisoned horses and try to strike each other with thrown bamboo lances.
Embassy of Ethiopia
3506 International Dr. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20008
202-364-1200; fax: 202-587-0195
Ethiopian Tourism Commission
P.O. Box 2183
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
251-1-517-470; fax: 251-1-517-533
BkFestHolWrld-1970, p. 23
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 758
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 39