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The On Being Project

Timkat: An Ethiopian Celebration of Epiphany

Ethiopian Orthodox Christians are showered with water from a cross-shaped pool that was blessed by priests during Timkat. (Photo by Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week millions of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians celebrated the feast of Timkat, the most important holiday for the Ethopian Orthodox faithful. Timkat began on January 19th and was celebrated for three days.

Forty percent of Ethiopians identify as Christians and are among one of the oldest Christian traditions in the world. This celebration of the Epiphany remembers Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River with a ritual reenactment and parades with replicas of a holy relic — a relic many of us may know from the Steven Spielberg film Raiders of the Lost Ark.


Ethiopian Orthodox Christian priests bless a cross-shaped pool of water during the annual festival of Timkat. (Photo by Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images)

A model of the Ark of the Covenant, called the Tabot, is wrapped in cloth and carried through the crowd in every city. A representation or model of the Ark resides in every Ethiopian Orthodox church. This holy relic is said to hold the Ten Commandments, which adherents believe God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai.

“To come close to the tablet is to come close to the word of God itself.”

The Tabots are carried only by the most senior priests of the community and completely covered because they are too sacred for anyone to gaze at them. Even the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox church is forbidden to see it; only its guardians can look at it. The actual Ark of the Covenant is said to be in the city of Aksum, guarded by monks who have vowed not to leave the chapel grounds until death.

Priests carry models of the container said to hold the Ten Commandments in brightly colored cloth. (Photo by Gordontour / Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)

One of Ethiopia’s most spiritual places for Christian Orthodox followers is Lalibela. The town hosts a church that was not just built, but hewn out of the region’s rock.

A view of the rock-hewn Church of Saint Emmanuel where Ethiopian Orthodox Christians gather during for the annual festival of Timkat. The site is now protected by UNESCO. (Photo by Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images)


An Ethiopian Orthodox Christian prays before taking part in celebrations for the annual festival of Timkat in Lalibela. (Photo by Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images)

Ethiopian priests and monks walk in a procession and carry embroidered fringed umbrellas. (Photo by Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images)

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