Timkat: The Festival of the Baptism

Each year on January 19, Timkat, or the festival of Epiphany, commemorates the baptism of Christ  in the Jordan River. This holiday, more lavish than Christmas, is celebrated with the most pageantry in Lalibela, the “Black Jerusalem” founded in the 13th century in the heart of the high Abyssinian plateaus. The evening before Timkat, the Tabots – replicas of the Ark of the Covenant – leave the many monolithic churches of the city with great pomp. Kept out of sight of laymen the rest of the year, enshrouded in rich brocade, they are paraded on the heads of the priests to a tent erected next to a pond in the form of a Greek cross. The entire night is devoted to a vigil of prayer and a mass. At the first light of dawn, the archbishop of Lalibela plunges a silver cross into the water, symbolizing the baptism of Christ, before sprinkling the faithful with it. In an indescribable tumult, they rush to the pool to partake in this shower of holy water. Drunk with joy, transported by elation, they symbolically renew their baptismal vows. In the afternoon, the Tabots return to their respective churches in a long procession studded with magnificent, finely carved crosses, accompanied by the songs and dances of the Dabtaras beating the tempo with their sistrums and prayer sticks.