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Awakened by Midnight Chants…Timkat in Ethiopia


A single candle illuminates the shrouded figures of four small children, bronzing their faces and imbuing them with an angelic quality. They are huddled together in a solemn observance of Timkat, the Ethiopian Orthodox Epiphany, or commemoration of the baptism of Christ. I reflect back on the chaos of yesterday’s Timkat Eve Ketra procession. How different and serene it is this pre-dawn morning of Timkat in Lalibela.

Twelfth century splendor

Ketra marks the beginning of Timkat Eve. Priests and deacons emerge from churches bearing precious icons, sacred manuscripts, and ornate processional crosses used to bless worshippers. They fall into procession along the dusty, pocked ribbon of road that winds through town, to the ceremonial grounds several miles away. The centerpiece of the pageantry is the sacrosanct tabot – a representation of the Ark of the Covenant. I approach to get a closer look, but the worshippers nearly tackle me to the ground. “That is a sacred icon! You must not go near!”

This could be the 12th century. The priests, resplendent in fine brocade vestments, leaning against prayer sticks, are like icons from the medieval past. The streets teem with throngs of pilgrims who move in swarms, and I try to keep up until it is nearly impossible to move, to take even another step. I find an opening in the maelstrom and make my way to the fringe of the crowd, lest I be trampled in a stampede.

The worshippers converge onto the ceremonial grounds as the priest begins the mass. Within minutes, the grounds throb with troupes of kinetic dancers, percussive sistrums, beating drums, trilling ululations, and chanting in praise of the deeds of saints. The festivities both blend and clash with the sanctity of the priest’s homily.

Awakened by midnight chants

Many devotees maintain an all-night vigil to honor the tabot. Their chanting continues throughout and wakes me up at intervals. It is a soothing chant, of this devout congregation softly calling out for God’s blessing, like rippling water along a riverbank. I wake up in the morning feeling renewed, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the interludes.

The delicate surface of history

The pre-dawn ceremonial grounds appear as a sepia photograph, filled to capacity with adherents on this early Timkat morning. Yesterday’s chaos is but a memory. Serenity prevails, as if someone has waved a magic wand over the town. In a scene that can only be described as biblical, flickering candles cast a warm glow across the faces of the pious, each shrouded in a traditional, loosely woven, white muslin shama. A few worshippers cast a curious glance my way, but most are so absorbed in prayer that they are indifferent to what is happening around them.

After the sermon worshippers proceed to the baptismal font to be anointed with holy water, commemorating Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan. Following the benediction, the procession retraces its dusty route, in step with the devout multitudes. The treasured icons are returned to the churches to be safeguarded for another year, under the watchful protection of priests and deacons. The last worshippers depart, marking the end of Timkat, and the dust settles once again across Lalibela and across the delicate surface of history.

These excerpts are from an article by Debbie Jefkin-Elnekave, published in Outdoor Photography.


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