Early in the morning of the 19th of January, we gather with the faithful at the field where the Tabots are kept. We are privileged to be admitted to the inner sanctum where the pool of blessed water is – with the patriarch and senior clergy.
Outside of the sanctum, hundreds of thousands of the faithful have been waiting all night for the patriarch to say mass and bless the pool, re-enacting the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan.
After chanting and prayers, we witness the blessing of the pool. And then…technology kicks in ! The patriarch is handed a water hose plugged into the pool and starts to spray the audience with a mischievous grin on his face. And thus are we blessed (or soaked, depending on the perspective!) by the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Priests wielding more hoses then proceed to spray the crowds surrounding the Inner Sanctum. At that point, the observers become actors as people in the crowd throw us empty bottles across the fence for us to fill up in the pool of holy water and throw back to them. For a moment, it is pure chaos as the police try to prevent us from throwing the bottles of holy water while the priests spur us on.
Ethiopia’s most important celebration is Timket, the Ethiopian Orthodox Epiphany. This celebrates Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan and the only time, Ethiopian Christians believe, when the three natures of god manifested themselves at the same time. On the eve of Timket, the main churches of Addis bring out their Tabots in big processions led by the senior clergy and followed by tens of thousands of believers. The Tabots are brought to a field on the edge of town where they are kept for the night.
On the following morning, the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church blesses a pool of water and then blesses the hundreds of thousands of believers who have gathered around the pool during the night to await him. At the end of the ceremony, the Tabots are brought back to their respective churches to be kept hidden until the next big celebration.
The rites of the Ethiopian Church are ancient and unlike any other Christian church’s. They are a blend of early Eastern Christianity and of pre-exodus Judaism, full of mysticism, mesmerizing chants and lavish costumes. The Ethiopians believe that the original Ark of the Covenant is kept in an Ethiopian church. Tabots, or replicas of the ark are a church’s most prized possession, only to be shown in public on the church’s saint’s name day and on Timket.
We witness the Coming Out of the Tabot of the Church of Saint Mary, the Patriarch’s own church, and with tens of thousands of people, follow it and its procession, which eventually merges with several other processions. The chanting, the improvised, organic waltz of the multitudes of faithful who follow the Tabots, the old ladies who kiss the ground stepped upon by the Patriarch, the ululation every time someone catches a glimpse of a Tabot – all seem quite surreal. Almost magically orchestrated.
With a rich and fascinating 3000 year history, Ethiopia (modern Abyssinia) is the only country in Africa never to have been colonized. Haile Selassie, Abyssinia’s last emperor, deposed in a military coup in 1974, is said to have been the 237th descendent of a lienage which goes back to King Solomon of Judea and Abyssinia’s Queen of Sheba.
Addis Abeba, (which means “the new flower” in Amharic) the capital, was founded in 1887 by Emperor Menelik II, on the site of hot springs. Located at an altitude of 2,400m, it has a pleasant temperate climate.
A city of 5 million, Addis has all the vibrancy, chaos and warmth of a large African city. At times more sprawling village than capital city, Addis is a melting pot of ethnic groups, with every shade of skin colour and every manner of national costume rubbing shoulders in its dusty, potholed streets. With an eclectic mix of architectural styles going from Italianate palaces (influenced by the Italian occupation during WWII) to Byzantine splendour to the Stalinist-realist style, it has a certain baroque charm, when one gets over the sensory overload.
But it is the kindness of its people which impresses us most. On the day of our arrival, we find ouselves giving chase to a street urchin who had pick-pocketed Conrad’s iPod, with the entire neighbourhood helping us to go after him until we finally recover it.