Orthodox Tewahedo celebration of Epiphany in the stunning Lalibela
Our trip through Ethiopia take us in the central area to a fascinating and mysterious city at 2.700 meters above sea level, Unesco World Heritage since the 60s: Lalibela. This city, which follows the name of its “holy king” Lalibela, is known as well as the second “Jerusalem” and it’s famous for its distinctive rock-cut churches dating from the 12th and 13th centuries, which are pilgrimage sites for Coptic Christians. Nowadays, Lalibela is both a significant place of Ethiopian Christianity and pilgrimage and devotion.
After the conquering of Jerusalem by the Saladin army in 1187, King Lalibela wanted to defend the Christendom of its city. He ordered to build churches carved in the rocks, linked by tunnels, creating a new Jerusalem, where the pilgrims could go to pray and for pilgrimages. Thanks to his past in Jerusalem, the King reproduced the main places of Palestine, including the “Jordan River“. Every year, a massive number of pilgrims gather together to celebrate the Coptic festivities.
Our trip to Lalibela coincides with Timkat (the Coptic Epiphany), the largest celebration of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It is celebrated every year on January 19th (January 20th in leap years), but the celebration lasts 3 days, from January 18th to 20th (or January 19th to 21st). The festival commemorates the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. The Orthodox celebration differs from our Epiphany, where the revelation of Jesus is commemorated on January 6th, symbolized by the Three Magi visit.
The three days of the Timkat celebration
On January 18th, known as Ketera, the replicas of the tablets where the 10 Commandments presented to Moses by God on Mount Sinai were written, called Tabot, are brought out of the Maktas (the “Sancta Sanctorum”) of the Lalibela churches by the oldest priest and wrapped in cloth and silk. The Tabot of each church is thus followed by a long procession of celebrating faithful to the river, the main place of the celebration. The different processions join together along the way, while the pilgrims dance and sing creating a unique atmosphere. The Tabots stay overnight near the water where Timkat is celebrated, and the ceremonies continue throughout the night.
The following morning (January 19th), the crowd of faithful gathers at dawn at the river, wearing white clothes and covering their heads with scarves. After the mass, speeches by important ecclesiastical figures are held, and the water is blessed. The participants then immerse themselves in the water, renewing their baptismal vows. It is a part of the celebration’s fundamental importance because it commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. In the late morning, the Tabots begin their return trip to their churches with a large procession that occasionally stops to perform songs and rituals. Again, a huge crowd of faithful follows the tables celebrating with songs and dances. Placed the tables in the churches, the faithful remain around to continue to celebrate this very important day.
On the third day (20th January), the last of the tables, which was consecrated to the Archangel Gabriel and left on the site near the river, return to its church, always followed by the crowd of faithful in celebration. As soon as it reaches its destination, the celebration ends. Our driver told us that as soon as they return home, the faithful continue the celebration of Timkat with their families by preparing lunches based on typical dishes such as Injera, a typical Ethiopian focaccia that is filled with various meats and vegetables and eaten with the hands, and the Doro Wat, a dish based on spiced chicken.
Need to know about Timkat in Lalibela
Timkat is a very evocative experience that we recommend if you visit Ethiopia in January. Remember that it is the most important celebration for Orthodox Ethiopians and the city of Lalibela is really crowded. Book your accommodation well in advance because you risk not finding a place.
How to reach Lalibela: The city is located in the north of the country, about 700 km from Addis Ababa. The easiest way to reach it is by domestic flight from the Ethiopian capital city.
Where to sleep: Lalibela is a small town but offers a decent choice of accommodation to suit all budgets. We slept at the Holidays Hotel.