Ethiopia is a very religious country. More than 80% people are orthodox Christians. All religious traditions are very living. One of the most important orthodox holidays is Timkat. It's a three days celebration, which is held by all the people. It reminds the people of John the Baptist's blessing of Christ in the River Jordan. The course differs from one place to another. We spent the Timkat in Lalibela, a small village inside the mountains, a long away from civilization. In the 13 century, a number of rock-hewn monasteries were build by king Lalibela who ruled here for almost a century. There are two main groups of churches, the western and the northern group. The churches are monolithic, carved from a mass of red volcanic scoria connected by a maze of tunnels and passages with openings to hermit caves and catacombs. In the Bet Golgotha church is king Lalibela's tomb. This church is unfortunately closed to women. Inside, the churches are simple fancy. In some of them, there are colorful frescos. Almost all churches are now sheltered by basic roof, because of erosion. The only unsheltered one is the St. Georges church. It is the most impressive one. It's designed like a cross, fair to look from nearby hill. There are lots of remote churches around Lalibela. You can spend a long time to discovering them. Lalibela is quite hard to reach. It takes approximately 2 days by bus. There are almost no sealed roads in Ethiopia, except those around the capital. The only one is near Lalibela, which leads to the new airport. So the easiest way to reach Lalibela is by plane. Ethiopian airlines fly here 3 times a week.
All the people from the province come here to celebrate Timkat. When we arrived, the small mountain village was full of people. We've met big processions of priests, monks and people from surrounding villages coming to the temples. Everybody was enjoying the celebration, everybody was singing and dancing. The priests wear colorful velvet and satin clothes; colored velvet umbrellas shelter them. All pilgrims carry long stick ends with fancy silver-like handles. We had a young guide, who guided us to the celebrations. It was quite expensive, but on the other hand quite useful. He took us to the right places at the right time, he told us a lot about Ethiopian history and the Timkat celebration itself. He also guided us through the temples. In each temple, there was one priest guarding the church, showing the holy items like silver crosses, colorful icons and 1000 year old holy bible, written on goatskin.
On the first day of the Timkat celebration, the Tabot (symbol of the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments) is taken out of the monasteries with a large procession. All the monks shake sitras (religion bells) and winding horns. One of the priests holds the Tabot on his head hidden in layers of colorful velvet shelter, not to be viewed by infidel people. The procession takes it to the large grass area where it is stored inside a special ceremonial tent. The priests and the monks are prying the whole night. Crowds of people spent the night in the surrounding area, to be close to the Tabot. They are prying eating and drinking by the fires, all dressed in white, look like earthbound angels. On the second day the priests christen the Tabot, all the holy religious items and the people. On the third day early in the morning, a big mass is held. After it, the Tabot is taken back to the temple in a great procession with a lot of stops on the way. Each stay is longer than the previous one. All the people are dancing and singing. The monks carry traditional big silver crosses, clap, dance, sing, and shake sitras. Some blow the brass horns. While the procession reaches the temple area, all the people round from a circle around the priests and monks. They are dancing traditional performances in the middle area.
The celebration ending and the pilgrims go back to their villages. The next day, Lalibela changes her face back to being a tiny village, till the next celebration.