Last January, in Addis Ababa, millions of Orthodox Christians came together to commemorate Christ’s baptism. This celebration, the Timkat, which is the Epiphany, is usually held around January 19.
Although this religious festival is celebrated by all the Christians around the world, it is of particular significance in Ethiopia, where it is the largest and most picturesque event of the year.
It was during my return to France in January this year that I had the opportunity to make a stopover in Ethiopia for a few hours: Twelve hours and twenty-three minutes to be precise. My camera bag on the back, ready to let myself be carried away, I head to the information desk of the hotel. The receptionist provides me with some useful information. “You’ll have to take a taxi into town. But the market is closed today! Today is the Timkat. Everything is closed. The whole city comes together by Jan Meda. I can show you how to get there! ”
Within a few seconds I just found two significant factors that set the pace to the lives of millions of Ethiopians during a single weekend. I quickly realized that I am about to spend a rather unique day. “Beginner’s luck,” I said to myself, addressing an amused smile to the Universe.
As my taxi threads its way through the condensed crowd, I do a quick search on the mysterious Timkat. This celebration that commemorates Christ’s baptism in the Jordan is also the day of the Ethiopian Epiphany. It is specific to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, one of the oldest branches of Christianity, which counts no less than fifty million worshippers. In Addis Ababa, members of various dioceses of the Church escort, in a multi-coloured parade, the sacred Tabots (replica of the Ark of the Covenant) to the various bodies of water of the area. The festival takes place over three days and follows the Ethiopian Coptic calendar.
By the gates of Jan Meda, a huge park on the outskirts of the city, I am facing an explosion of sensations: The prayers and chants emanating from around the procession while Boswellia burning incense diffuses slowly embalming the pilgrims converging towards the entrance. I sneaked through the human maze and managed to enter the sacred precinct. A priest dressed in black blessed with his heavy cross the faithful who humble themselves before him.
” Where do you come from?” my neighbour asks me. I explain that I am visiting for the day before my flight back home, in France. I read in his eyes that glow of pride that I am now in the middle of the crowd, by his side. While heading to a crowd out from which people come out completely soaked, he tells me that Timkat is a word derived from the Guéze language – ancient Ethiopian – which means “immersion in water” referring to the baptism of Christ.
A few drops lightly touch my face. Suddenly it’s a torrent. I protect my camera by innate reflex before even trying to find out where the water comes from. Looking up, I then understand. Perched on numerous promontories, some young priests sprinkle the crowd using simple garden hoses. As water drops rain, smiles fly. This rain of holy water is greeted with excitement and deliverance.
As the hours go by, I am restlessly shooting, enjoying the general joy and marvelling at the beauty of Ethiopians’ features. “Yann, you believe in God?” suddenly asks Solomon. A little distraught, I told him that I believe in a higher power, the famous universe – but not in a God, in a representation. I see instantly the disappointment in his eyes but mostly sadness. Sadness for me not to have a God who can protect me and guide me. He smiled at me.
I lived this day intensely, taking advantage of everything that was offered to me to see, smell, and feel. I realize that faith can be beautiful, unifying and open. These are values that I could not associate with religion anymore. I was filled with gratitude and thanked God – no matter its name, whatever its image – for giving me such a beautiful day, on the cradle of humanity’s lands.
Text and photos Yann Marcherez