The drive from Bahir Dar to Gondar is a pleasant three hour excursion north along Lake Tana through farmland, mountains and plains. As with many Ethiopian towns, Gondar is very hilly, making it a hiker’s delight and a challenge for those who are less mobile.
Since we arrived on the eve of the famous Timkat Festival, the streets were filled with Christian faithful from all over the region, here to celebrate Ethiopian Epiphany which commemorates the baptism of Christ according to the singular Ethiopian Orthodox Church. In Ethiopia, holidays are different (Christmas is January 8), as is the year (7 years behind the Western calendar) and even the time is told differently (6 pm our time equals noon Ethiopia time).
Gondar is worth a visit anytime to see 17th century castles and churches built by King Fasilidas and his progeny. It also makes for a great base from which to explore the beautiful Simien Mountains, home to endemic species such as Galada baboons, Walia Ibex and Simien red fox. We were here for Timkats, which exceeded my expectations in terms of pageantry, attendance and exuberance. Part religious service, part parade, and part party, it was a celebration in every sense of the word.
Really the festival spans several days. People attending the festival dress in sparkling whites and the priests in brilliant reds, greens, purples and golds. The festival begins with parades of arcs or “holy af holies,” without which no Ethiopian church is consecrated. These are mini-replicas of the original Arc of the Covenant which, according to Ethiopian tradition, holds Moses’s original 10 commandments and is said to have been brought my Menalik I from Jerusalem after he took it from King Solomon’s temple. (Ethiopians believe Menelik I was the son of King Solomon’s affair withe the Queen of Sheba who they believe was Ethiopian, though many scholars are not convinced). The arcs are brought from 40-plus regional churches to be blessed with holy water from King Fasilidas’s pool.
The parade of arcs is led by bat wielding boys whose enthusiastic chants and jumps kept more than one onlooker far on the sidelines. Next come guards or escorts in red and and attendants in white. Sometimes floats are involved and there is lots of singing and chanting, drumming and horn blowing. Grass and heavy carpets are laid down before the procession of priests carrying the arcs, wrapped in cloth, on their heads, which are shaded by colorful umbrellas. This goes on for hours until all the arcs reach the walled pool. That night there was much singing, dancing and even fireworks in town while the priests spent the night praying by the pool.
The next morning, the faithful and curious trekked back to the pool for the service, some of which was translated into English for the foreign visitors in attendance. The pool is in an enclosed walled compound big enough for the clergy, some dignitaries, and paying tourists. The majority of people gather around the stone walls. The excitement was too much for some locals who created a mob scene as they pushed toward the walls, trapping the ones in front and causing the police to wield their batons with some force. Inside after much praying and chanting the water is blessed by Ethiopia’s archbishop and all hells breaks loose as young men jump into the holy water and people use spray guns to hose the pilgrims. The clergy then parade the arcs back out and the people spend the rest of the day celebrating, some of them into the night.
In retrospect, Timkats was one of the most unique and impressive (and frightening) cultural events I’ve ever seen. It is certainly a sight to be seen for culture lovers, but people who don’t like unruly crowds, noise and walking should stay away. There are also annoyances. I lost a bit of cash to pick pockets, which is not uncommon amongst such crowds. Hotel space is limited and reservations are not always honored, even when they have been paid in full.
The best hotel in town is the Taye, followed by the Goha, and the Qura and others like it. Next stop; Kelly accompanies the group to visit the Southern tribes.