Journal Part 2 – Gondar – Timkat

We promised you a second dose, after Genna (Christmas) in Lalibela, now Timkat (Epiphany) in Gonder. Timkat celebrates Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. As one might expect, baptism – the first step on the lifelong road to eternal bliss or unending agony – is a rite for which the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has its own rules. For example, a boy child is baptised after 40 days, a girl after 80 days. Given the historical high levels of child mortality, it makes you wonder about the gender imbalance in the netherworld. (To the best of my knowledge, there is no limbo here, not official Catholic doctrine but a concept invented by some theologians to relieve the discomfort of condemning unbaptised infants to eternal damnation on the grounds of the original sin of Eve and Adam, something felt by many to be outrageous even by the lights of the most generous theodicy…)
Anyway, I digress… If Genna in Lalibela was a sober and, at times, moving and awe-inspiring experience, Timkat in Gonder has more of a carnival feel. The hotels are full and prices high, so we were lucky to be offered a free bed by a generous fellow VSO (thank you Fiona), whilst others laid on an evening party (thanks John and Heather). The celebrations continue over three days, though we were present only for two (for further details, see Wikipedia).
On the Saturday (January 18) the town’s many churches held processions through the town. We watched with assorted volunteers, including about 20 young Peace Corps who had travelled in from their various scattered and remote locations. One lived on the procession route, and kindly offered us a strategic wall with a grandstand view, which we shared with other families from her compound.

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The usual constellations of men in gilded and colourful frocks, under umbrellas of rococo splendour, accompanied the tabots (replicas of the ark of the covenant, the tablets of stone bearing the 10 Commandments given to Moses by God, the original of which is purportedly in Aksum, having been stolen from Jerusalem by Menelik I, illegitimate son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba), the one day in the year when these hallowed objects are removed from the secrecy of the holy of holies in their various churches and paraded before the faithful. The procession is slow, since the tabots and their priestly attendants move forwards on red carpets, which have to be rolled up as the pageant passes, carried to the front by runners, and re-laid.

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As with Lalibela at Christmas, Gonder at Timkat has a main event, the celebration that everyone comes to see, and some to take part in. And once again, it meant sacrificing sleep, this time with a 4 am start on the Sunday morning. A well-organised VSO couple (John and Heather from Canada) had laid on a minibus to take us to the venue, a place called Fasilides Bath, which is best described by photographs. For 50 weeks in the year, this sunken space is bare earth, but in the week before Timkat it is filled, ready for the re-enactment of the baptism (possibly explaining why taps in people’s houses and apartments mysteriously run dry from mid-January onwards).
At one end of the pool was a wooden stand of tiered seating, a grandstand embarrassingly restricted to VIPs, ferenjis and their guides, while the other spectators and participants perched precariously in the ancient trees or on the crumbling stone walls. After the obligatory 2 hours of waiting while the security forces waited for VIPs, we found ourselves seated about as perfectly as one could imagine, in the central axis of the pool. From our new viewpoint, and with the arrival of dawn, we could see the ranks of berobed clerics and congregations ringing the baths, not to mention priestly hands raised high in devotion to Apple, Nokia and the ecclesiastical selfie.

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The two hours had been filled with the usual Ge’ez chanting and swaying, though unusually interspersed with some appreciated English language commentary on the meaning of Epiphany. Gradually, we became aware of figures in particularly exquisite robes, carrying the great gold cross of Gonder and the traditional thurible, approaching the water and sitting on the steps. At the same time, crowds of young men in swimming trunks/underwear gathered around the sides of the pool, one even high up in the branches of the tree overhanging the pool. As the chanting rose to a climax, the man in blue (Bishop of Gonder) teasingly brought his cross ever closer to the surface of the water. Not sure what the penalty for a false start in this particular race is – excommunication, damnation? – but one lad came close to incurring it. Finally, gold lightly touched the surface of the pool, transforming it into holy water and ending the suspense…, though not for the boy in the tree waiting for a space to clear below him, crossing himself repeatedly.
This plunge into the pool is an almost exclusively masculine activity, at least for habesha. We have it on good authority that, for women, swimming is perceived as indecent. A few girls sat on the steps, splashing the newly sacralised water over themselves. However, there is nothing in the rulebook about ferenji females, and a few of our new-found Peace Corps friends from the day before took the plunge, though decorously attired for reasons of cultural sensitivity. Whilst the brave and hardy continued to survive the freezing water, many dispersed and for us back for a much overdue breakfast.

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2 Comments

  1. p r

     /  13/02/2014

    Just read the blog. A good tale well told and illustrated. Just wondering about lemons. Are they a myth?
    Pat

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Reply
  2. A good question! Not sure, further enquiries needed. Maybe just that none were thrown my way! Barbara

    Reply

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