Timkat is probably the world’s biggest party. Yes, I realise much bigger festivals exist, and I realise that it’s a religious celebration rather than a party, but I have never seen or heard of anything quite as intense as Timkat. In Gondar (also spelled Gonder), the streets roar for days on end with singing, dancing, horn-blowing and prayer. The event is a cacophony in the most joyous sense of the word, and it’s nothing short of spectacular.
It’s truly unbelievable, and for that reason alone I’d recommend going to Gondar for Timkat if you’re in the country at that time. I almost went to another town with a smaller celebration, but I’m so glad I didn’t. But why Gondar?
Timkat is the celebration of Epiphany, or the baptism of Jesus. During the ceremony, which is celebrated all over the country, the clergy carry a replica of the Ark of the Covenant to a body of water and bless it before people ceremonially baptise themselves. Every Orthodox church in the country has a replica of the Ark, but they’re normally kept behind a shower curtain and only viewable by the clergy. That is, until Tikmat comes around, and lay people are able to catch a glimpse of it.
Emperor Fasilides (also spelled Fasiladas and Fasiledes) made Gondar his capital in 1632. In doing so, he commissioned a grand bath for both swimming and religious ceremonies. The latter have continued to this day, and they have become the largest and most significant Timkat celebration in the country. Where other towns might collect water from a river, people in Gondar can be fully immersed in the blessed water.
My first day in Gondar will filled with parades. At midday a small procession exited the royal enclosure from my hotel with great celebration and fanfare. As the group headed down the street, it joined a similarly-sized one, which meant double the music and dancing. This process continued, and the procession and number of people watching kept doubling in size until the entire main street of Gondar was filled to the brim with dancing worshipers. It was surreal.
The clergy themselves walk under ornate umbrellas while holding old crucifixes, but they never touch the ground. A team of men unfurl rolls of carpet in front of the priests and pick it up after them—there were about three sections of carpet in constant rotation.
On either side, a seemingly endless line of children sing and dance in formation while wearing colourful uniforms which seem to group them by age. It’s extremely cute. Add to this the ruckus of enthusiastic, Ethiopian spectators and you have one of the most vibrant, passionate and seemingly-chaotic celebrations in the world.
This whole party lasts for days. Every day I spent in Gondar (and there are more than I can remember) had the constant soundtrack of people cheering, chanting and blowing horns. People in their finest traditional clothes would not stop breaking out into dance right in the street, and several dance circles lasted from the time I arrived to the time I left. I kid you not. I have no idea what happened to these circles late at night, but I never ever saw them die down. Ever!
Another factor are the boys running with sticks. I could never get a straight answer on what this actually was, and the internet seems to be of little help either. Basically, hordes of teenage boys and young men would run in mobs, chanting and holding up sticks with one hand.
The closest comparison I could think of while watching them was that of a bikie gang in that the huge groups would dominate the whole street with their presence. On several occasions they ran into the procession and were screamed at by everyone. Another time, I was in a shoulder-to-shoulder gridlock of people spanning the entire main piazza when one of these groups approached. Instead of going back and finding an alternative route, they continued to run full-speed into the crowd and knocked over several sugarcane vendors’ wheelbarrows 😦
In stark contrast to this raucousness is the dawn vigil which takes place the following day. This is when the Ark replica is taken to Fasilides’ Bath for the water to be blessed.
I arrived at the bath before sunrise. Even from outside the complex, the solemn chanting can be heard clearly. After being given/sold a candle for 1 birr, I walked in. Seeing the masses of people huddling with their candles in the dark reminded me of fireflies. But what they were doing was actually reading from pocket-sized, hand-written bibles by candlelight.
There’s a rickety grandstand for VIPs and tourist, but it was already full by the time I arrived (and this was still extremely early!). Instead, I walked around the whole complex until I found an amazing vantage point at the back among the masses. While I can’t compare it to being on the grandstand which I missed out on, I do think it could be as good if not better to stand in the crowd.
One word of warning: pickpocketing is rampant here. I caught three different people grabbing my phone, and another foreigner had her purse stolen which contained her passport and wallet. However this was confined to the base of the grandstand, where people stood shoulder-to-shoulder as the crowd rocked back and forth. There were no issues at my eventual vantage point.
Watching the candlelit ceremony unfold from the back, I was approached by a group of street kids. I knew this because there were not with any family like everyone else and they wore dirty rags as opposed to the pristine white blankets and veils which were otherwise ubiquitous.
They too had come to join in on the country’s biggest and most important celebration, but they quickly became interested in me. First they wanted to see my photos. As I scrolled through my album of yesterday’s parade, they relived the event before reading all the Amharic shop signs in the background.
Over the beautiful yet repetitive chants and prayers of the crowd, I was then interrogated about my own religious beliefs by a noisy 9-year old, who seemed to be the oldest. He first asked me if I was Orthodox, in a doubtful tone. When I replied “no”, he moved on to Evangelism and Protestantism (I realise there’s some overlap, but I’m just repeating what he asked). He then asked if I was a Sunni, which I found quite creative, but what took me more aback was when he followed up by asking if I was a Salafi.
How he even knew what that meant is beyond me, but I realised it was time to make it crystal clear that I have no religion. Apparently the concept of atheism is unfathomable to children in Ethiopia, and I’m not surprised, given how overtly religious the whole country is. On the bright side, I did secretly enjoy the attention from their astonishment, but I quickly had to quieten them down so as not to interrupt the prayers.
Towards the end of the ceremony, hundreds of men jump into the bath to re-enact the baptism of Jesus. For tourists (and some locals too) this is the main event, and I missed it because I’m a fucking idiot. Waking up early with no food or water or warm clothes is a really stupid idea but I did it anyway. Basically, I left the vigil early after a few hours because I felt like shit.
This purely my own doing, and the culmination of a bunch of really minor things at that. Nevertheless, when I returned to my dorm in the basement of a much nicer hotel, I met a bunch of other early returnees who were in similar circumstances. My advice: prepare snacks, water and maybe even tissues, and if you’re from a warmer country like me, don’t forget a jacket!
Being a relatively large and extremely important town, there is no shortage of good food in Gondar. I found it a particularly good place to get kitfo (read my caption…), which, for the initiated, is raw beef. This one was much better than the one I had in Addis Ababa simply because the chunks were bigger, retain the beautiful texture of the meat and bringing out the flavour better.
It was still a struggle to order, though, with the waiter refusing to believe I knew what I was ordering when I pointed at another table. A few smiles and some broken English-Amharic later and I had my meal in front of me. When I returned the next day he was much more enthusiastic now that I had proven myself.
The town also has several sites which are great in their own right. The 70,000m2 Royal Enclosure (or Fasil Ghebbi) dates back from the Emperor Fasilides’ 35-year reign but countless additions have been constructed over the centuries. Being a world heritage site, it’s currently under gentle restoration by UNESCO however most of the complex has been fairly well preserved anyway.
Naturally, the main and most picturesque building is Fasilides’ Palace. Its architecture incorporated everything that was known to Ethiopians at the time; ancient Aksumite, Nubian, Indian, Moorish and Portuguese influences are all evident, which came by way of older buildings, foreign traders and Jesuit missionaries, respectively.
The buildings are decently restored/preserved and the gardens are really peaceful, so it’s a great opportunity to wander and just imagine what life in the enclosure would’ve been like centuries ago. Most of the buildings can be entered—think empty banquet halls and parlours—but the rooms are nothing special and it’s the exterior that’s the main drawcard anyway. Centuries ago Gondar was legendary among travellers from other continents, and it’s clear why the town has been dubbed “the Camelot of Africa”.
On the eastern outskirts of Gondar is the church of Debre Birhan Selassie, which had by far the best church paintings in the country. While the building is nothing special, the frescos are vivid and the unique, cherub-lined ceiling is truly a sight to behold. Much like those in Lalibela, this church has a bee-related backstory too: the current building was supposedly defended from a Dervish invasion in the 1880s by a swarm of bees!
Timkat is a time for devotion and celebration. Accordingly, a huge portion of the country (i.e. anyone with the means) descend upon Gondar for the premier event. There’s a reason prices double during this period, and there’s a reason you need to book accommodation (and probably plane tickets too, if that’s you you’re travelling) at least a week in advance.
Yes, Gondar is a fascinating and lively town that’s unmissable in its own right. But visiting at any time other than Timkat would be a disservice to the significance it plays in Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity and by extension Ethiopian society as a whole. Such a unique, overwhelming and unforgettable celebration surely cannot be missed.
Most people will focus on the dawn vigil, but personally, you can catch me should-to-shoulder with dancing worshipers in the streets.