We stayed in Gondar at the “Goha Hotel”:http://www.silvertraveladvisor.com/travel-product/accommodation/162390-goha-hotel to participate in the Ethiopian Epiphany (Timkat) on 19 January. The celebrations are to commemorate the baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River by John the Baptist and Gondar’s events are considered the most colorful and vibrant in Ethiopia.
The day before Timkat there is a huge parade where the tabots, or sacred replicas of the Ark of the Covenant (containing the Ten Commandments), are wrapped in luxurious cloth, placed on the head of a priest and carried out of the church in a procession with the clergy to Fasilidas’s Pool where they remain overnight.
On arrival in town, Eskedar, our guide, ensured we were both garbed appropriately with our bodies and heads swathed in white muslin. We met the procession at a roundabout and although you weren’t meant to cross a line of boys holding hands to keep the crowds back, Eskedar took us into the middle for excellent views.
He then commandeered my camera which I appreciated as I could concentrate on watching what was happening. It was a fascinating procession with priests and other clergy dressed in their finery, holding umbrellas and swinging incense burners.
A jeep with huge speakers in the back led the parade with clergy taking it in turn to walk behind and sing. Following were the priests with the Arks and vibrantly coloured silk umbrellas.
Although the priests were meant to walk on red carpet, they obviously only had so much (bearing in mind the parade was for a couple of miles) and so a team of boys with luminous orange waistcoats rolled it up once everyone had walked on it, ran round to the front and unfurled it. They must have been exhausted by the end of the day as it was very hot. Also where the Arks were being carried was a set of barriers on wheels to keep the crowds away.
On either side of the procession and in front of it, were lines of elaborately dressed groups of children and young people, singing and clapping and lining the route. Marshalls were trying to keep everyone, bar Eskedar and us, on the pavement. It was truly an amazing sight and one that we were part of rather than just watching it go by from a vantage point as many other tourists were.
A young male TV presenter stopped and asked Eskedar if he could interview us. He was wearing white trousers with a bottom wide pelmet of turquoise sequins, a white shirt and white silk waistcoat covered in sequins on the front. We don’t think he was from the BBC!
We eventually ended up at the front of the parade and came across three floats which had actual children dressed as cherubs and angels. By now, groups of local people, generally males, were dancing with crowds gathering round them in circles.
Late in the afternoon, we had to take a tuk tuk back to the hotel as many of the roads were closed off to regular traffic. We spent the night sorting through what seemed like millions of photographs.
On the day of the Epiphany, we met Eskedar at 4.30am and drove the short distance to Fasilidas’s Pool. Whilst we got garbed up again, Eskedar bought long thin candles from people who were assailing every new arrival. We walked a little way through the dark and saw lots of people dressed like us bearing candles – some were laid out on the ground having being there all night.
We tried to get in one entrance to the pool without success so walked to another where there was a rickety wooden ramp which led to precarious wood staging. It was obvious there was a problem, as Eskedar was trying to phone the person he’d paid to reserve our seats. Even if he’d been able to get hold of him, we wouldn’t have been allowed in.
Eventually after about 20 minutes of pushing and shoving, a group of people were let in and the three of us held hands to ensure we all got up. Although the stadium seating was full with people having been there all night, we were able to sit right at the front on the floor with our legs dangling. By now it was 5.30am. I suspect those that had been up even earlier to get into the stadium wouldn’t have such good views.
The large rectangular pool and stone building was lit up with patriotic red, green and yellow fairy lights and bunting and there was what can only be described as a constant wail over a speaker (in reality it was a Divine Liturgy which had been going on since 2am). We could just make out shadowy figures around the edge of the pool. It didn’t get light for another hour when the choirs we’d seen yesterday in the parade, started filing in by torchlight on the right hand side whilst the clergy were on the left.
Eventually more and more white-robed, white-hatted priests came out with the holy sticks and formed a line in front of us. The ceremonial people came to the water’s edge and started making speeches – one was in English although it was difficult to hear all he said. And then one guy started and wouldn’t stop, getting more and more animated. Eventually he shut up after ages and drumming started with the priests clapping and waving a metal jangling hand instrument.
Water from the pool (which is normally empty) was blessed whilst males in the pool area started stripping off to their shorts and underpants to jump in. Eskedar said that in the past people have climbed the ebony trees surrounding the pool, but this year the police and army were having none of it although there was a cheer at one point when someone had obviously evaded them.
Then people started climbing up over the wall in front of us and the police and army were on them like a ton of bricks. This felt a little frightening being so close as I was afraid the stand might collapse under the weight of the extra bodies. Eventually the young boys started diving in (and one person dropped in from a tree) until it was full of people splashing around in the water. Then the whole place filled up with people clambering to get into the water.
We watched for a while and left around 8.30am as the Arks of the Covenant were starting to be returned to their churches except for that of St Michael as it his special day the following day.
We tried to get out of one entrance but it was chaos so we went to another which would have involved climbing up rickety steps made from bamboo – it felt very dangerous as there was so many people pushing. Just as we got near the first step, we were all turned away because the steps had broken. We returned to our original escape route and joined the throng pushing forwards. We couldn’t understand why it was so difficult to get out until we got to the entrance to find a whole host of people trying to get in through the same gap.
Safely out we breathed a sigh of relief and wandered away but found our driver was unable to get through as roads were still blocked off. So it was another tuk tuk all the way back to the hotel arriving for a late breakfast.
We subsequently found this Youtube video of the celebrations: