“When are they coming?” had to have been asked at least ten times. “Which way are they coming?” was asked a few times. People looked at their watches & scanned both ends of the street.
“Didn’t she ask that already?” Leulseged asked me. He was confused by the multiple questions. I laughed and said that the problem was that if such a procession was happening in the US or Europe, the parade route would be published in the newspaper with specific times for road closures. It’s hard for people used to that to accept the relaxed vagueness of the timing of the Ethiopian Timket parade.
So there we stood, a dozen or so farenj and one local, watching the bustle on the street below and waiting for one of Ethiopia’s most colourful spectacles to start.
Timket is the Ethiopian Epiphany – 12 days after the Ethiopian Christmas which comes in early January. (The Ethiopian Church follows an Orthodox calendar.) The main public spectacle is the parade or procession. Priests from each church take the tabot – a copy of the Ark of the Covenant (the original is up north in Axum – so they’ll tell you, but they can’t show it to you!) – out of the church for a ritual baptism evocative of Jesus’ own.
After an overnight ceremony at the river – I’d heard the service dimly from my house – the tabot was now returning back to its home church. As the procession was coming down the main street between my house and the school, it was a perfect opportunity for watching and recording the colourful celebration.
We stood on a balcony overlooking the street. We watched the build-up as people found shady spots to sit and see the street, more dedicated ones walking up the street to join the procession. Police arrived to control and then shut junctions, kids looked up at us and waved. Soon the crowds thickened, we heard distant drumming and then the carpet brigade came. The red carpet is in sections, and teams of men unroll them one after another to form a clean and special path for the priests bearing the tabot to follow. They then run to the rear of the procession so they can roll up a vacated carpet section and then bring it to the front. Repeat. Again and again and again!
Various groups of people – mostly men, with some women – would sing songs, beating drums and blowing tin horns. They would march down the street, singing and dancing, waving flags and tinselled crosses clapping and exhorting the crowd to join in. Occasionally – and often it was directly opposite us – they would stop and form a circle, dancing in and around each other, or clapping on the few in the center. The enthusiasm and excitement was palpable and infectious.
Finally, the crowds surged around the corner and the street filled – priests and tabot and church officials on one side and the general population on the other. The priests were brightly decked out in their fine robes, carrying beautiful embroidered cloth umbrellas to shade them from the hot sun. Reds and golds and plenty of white glittered in the sun.
On the other side of the street, most were dressed in traditional white clothing – particularly the women. Many danced and sang along with the church bands – leading the procession with drumming and singing.
The procession quickly passed by, with only a glimpse of the priests carrying the tabot over their heads, covered with thick gold-embroidered cloth. The teams rolled the carpet up behind them as the procession headed down the street towards the church. More groups of unofficial singers and dancers followed, the crowds thinned and the police started traffic flowing again. Melkam Timket!
I've been teaching and traveling the world for decades. I teach technology skills and programming in international schools, and love developing skills in my students. Teaching internationally gives me a broader perspective and I thoroughly enjoy the thrill of new sights and experiences.