Celebrating Timkat in Gondar: Ethiopia’s Reknowned Epiphany

A few months ago, massive protests in the Amhara region of northern Ethiopia led to a state of emergency. I honestly had some doubts about visiting Ethiopia, but a few people assured me that things would be ok, and worst case, I could opt to visit other parts of Ethiopia if trouble broke out again. The truth was I really wanted to visit northern Ethiopia and with a January visit, being present for the Ethiopian Orthodox Epiphany celebration,  Timkat (Sometimes written as Timket) from January 18th – 20th, was a major wish list item for me. Timket is celebrated across Ethiopia, but visitors tend to make special arrangements to be in the city of Gondar for its particularly famous festivities at the historic Fasiledas Bath.

My Ethiopia journey began in Addis Ababa and then on to Lalibela and Axum, three very different characters. Addis Ababa, the large chaotic city; Lalibela, practically a village, and Axum, a small town. Gondar, on the other hand, is a small city with a population of more than half a million people. Like Lalibela and Axum, Gondar is a tiny little airport where the arrival room consists of yet another set of hotel/lodge tables with men sent to pick up their guests. Being a city, the presence of paved roads is much more prevalent than Axum or Lalibela.

 

Finally, a Good Hotel!

It is insanity to look at the Gondar listings under Tripadvisor. Under hotels, the top-rated Goha hotels high up out of the city had a 3.5 star rating. Other popular hotels, like AG and Florida International, hover around the same with most guests being honest about the mediocrity. At one point, I thought I would just have to pick the least offensive-looking, until I encountered Lodge du Chateau under “Specialty Lodging”. As I found out later from the owner, this category was picked by the last owner and I ended up spending a few hours trying to spruce up their online booking and presence – you know you are a true travel geek when you get pleasure out of doing something like that.

 

Needless to say, after not loving my hotels in Addis, Axum and Lalibela, I finally found some comfort at Lodge du Chateau. The staff really went out of their way to point me in the right direction, and it was full of a ton of friendly independent travelers who would congregate on the roof terrace to share stories and hang out. The place was not luxury, but it was just relaxing and comfortable despite its cosmetic flaws. I would have happily spent a couple of more days there and sort of regret not taking the trek up to the Simien mountains, but such is life – I try not to have too many regrets.

Historic Gondar

Gondar is actually worth spending a day to see some of the historic. Do you need a guide in Gondar? Not really. You can negotiate on foot and in tuk tuks and explore the historic points of interest totally independent. Just like Lalibela or Axum, someone or the other will follow you if you choose to take a walk, although in Gondar it was not quite as bad as Lalibela. I never could quite figure out what they really wanted from me. It was never an outright “give me money” or “I want to be your guide”. It was an extended conversation which would end in some lost in translation request. One guy asked me if I could provide some t-shirts because it was his father’s birthday the next day and it would be nice to give them out. Another group of teen boys introduced themselves and gave their field of study (which I was deeply skeptical of) and told me they wanted to take me to their professor’s house for coffee ceremony. The little kids might try to get you to buy them an overpriced dictionary but left as soon as I gave a flat no.

  • Fasil Ghebbi, the Royal Enclosure

As expected, the Italians (what have they contributed to the world anyway besides Mussolini?) destroyed a good portion of this historic complex, including structures and the original paintings. Luckily, most of the main structures are still intact, including the beautiful Castle of Emperor Fasiledes, but that is just one component of this large complex. There are traditional baths, a concert hall, a library, churches and even cages where lions were once kept. Not to mention that after the death of Fasiledes, his successor Yohannes built his own castle, and his successor Iyasu then built his own castle, and his successor Dawit III built his own castle, hence why the complex grew and grew over the years. I recommend hiring one of the freelance guides or bringing a good guidebook as there is basically no information anywhere.

  • Debre Berhan Selassie Church

This is one of the most famous churches in Ethiopia, not because of its structure, which is quite simple, but the paintings inside the church depicting a full history of the Ethiopian Orthodox take on the life of Jesus and the aftermath, coupled with hundreds of angel faces on the ceiling.

  • Fasiledas Bath

The bath is filled for Timkat to be able to bless the water and re-enact the Baptism of Jesus Christ.

Timkat Ceremonies

dsc_0549Timket lasts for three days. On the first day, crowds gathered as the Fasiledas Bath to watch the procession with the model Ark of the Covenant, which I had just missed. Circles of religious song dotted the fields around the bath.

The devoted will stay all night at the Fasiledas Bath, but for most people, attending the ceremony involves being up at 4 or 5 in the morning to get a good position. Foreigners are cordoned off into a special seating section. We were packed tightly in and sitting on narrow wooden logs became quite sore after a while. Most of the visitors seemed to consist of a couple of huge French tour groups full of cranky older folks who would throw a hissy fit when anyone dared to get up.dsc_0562

When the ETV cameraman decided to set up in front, they went ballistic – the rest of us sitting around there had a good laugh at how childish these old folks can behave. It sometimes amazes me what sort of different attitudes I have encounter from older tourists. I have met some wonderful older travelers – these are the ones that are experienced travelers, who are easy-going, full of life stories, and understanding of needing to be a pleasant citizen of the world. dsc_0611On the flip side, you have the cranky types who never really traveled and bring along with them certain unrealistic expectations and a mentality (I might even call it “colonial”) of expecting to be served like royalty. I love talking to the first group – they have amazing stories. I avoid the latter like a plague. Unfortunately, they consisted of a lot of the tourists I encountered in Ethiopia.

The ceremony in the morning after the priests line up around the bath lasts for a few hours, consisting of prayer, chanting, religious hymns, even some drumming and the clang of the priests’ sistrums, a unique instrument to the Ethiopian Orthodox church. Hundreds, maybe thousands, stood on the outskirts of the bath in the traditional white cloth to watch the ceremony take place.

The waters of the Fasiledas bath are blessed towards the end of the morning ceremony. As this happens, large number of young men line up around the bath, ready in their bathing suits to dive in to re-enact the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan river. For most of us, this is the climax of the event.

The foreigners who came to see the ceremonies were given their own ceremonial baptism with a water hose. This was hilarious, maybe not so much the getting soaked as watching the cranky old ladies getting into a fit after being sprayed with water. Some memories are just too good. There was no time to wait around. As the foreigners were cleared out of the log bleachers, pilgrims were eagerly waiting to make their way up, some even starting to dsc_0737climb up the back of the structure to reach the top. I was not quite sure whether they were frantically trying to make their way up to watch or to find a quicker access path into the path. We were pretty much escorted off the premises.

 

 

The streets were crowded. I became quite fascinated by the festivities but also a little worn out. Luckily, Lodge du Chateau arranged transportation for us back to the hotel and topped off the morning with a well-done breakfast. After the awful breakfasts in three other cities, this was a welcome change. Especially the coffee – none of the instant coffee that seriously makes me gag, but properly brewed, good coffee.

The Procession

More than a few people I spoke to mentioned how different Timket was this year because of the trouble with the government last year. Apparently many people felt less than enthusiastic and the procession was nothing like it normally would be.

People lined the streets of downtown Gondar to watch the religious procession move towards the main church. The most important of these is the Ark of Covenant, being moved in a procession with the priests. I wandered around and found a table on the edge of one of the downtown restaurants. They were happy to let me sit as long as I brought a beer.

The procession, which I was told was far shorter than it normally would be, included more drummers, young men dancing, choirs, and more. I couldn’t even keep track of it all. The procession moves quite slow, especially as it moved towards the Statue of Emperor Tewodros II in the main Piassa, so I had the chance to just keep walking and watching the procession over and over until it ended at the church close by Fasil Ghebbi. After a few iterations of watching the procession, I was done with it. There really isn’t much else to do in Gondar. Timkat lasts for a third and final day, which is dedicated to the Archangel Mikael, where the Arks are carried back to their respective churches. I did not stay in Gondar to see this, instead witnessing it at churches along the way to Bahir Dar. The Timkat festivities are a wonderful way to really see the religious devotion of followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox church. On the other hand, if visiting Gondar in another time one day is more than enough to see the historic sites of the city.

Speaking of which, I am not the type to do much of anything twice, but I loved Four Sisters enough to go back twice. The restaurant, strangely tucked away past tuk-tuk’s being repaired and a dust field where kids play football, is run by four sisters and is a cute place that admittedly brings in the tour groups, but also well-heeled locals having a night out and even the independent travelers. When you are traveling alone, I constantly say dinner is my least favorite meal, because while sometimes I find someone to dine with, dinner is typically a more intimate, social meal which tends to be awkward in a busy restaurant. img_3171After being up at dawn for a couple of days and being worn out all day, they had a buffet chock full of surprisingly well-done Ethiopian specialties that made it easy for me to have  a quick meal and move on with my night.
The four sisters are cheerful and move about, offering a smell of roasted coffee, a sample of local honey wine, or a finger bowl. While I have eaten Ethiopian food many times in New York City, in Ethiopia I fell in love with Shiro, a savoury stew made from chickpea powder. I literally had to have it everyday, sometimes twice a day.

Bahir Dar

On the third day of Timkat, I made my way to Bahir Dar for a visit to Lake Tana. People (mostly kids) collecting money for the churches blocked the roads at various points. My driver left small cash amounts at each of these “stops”. Along the road, people were dressed and headed to church once again.

Solo Traveler Comments:

Pros

  • Not much hassling on the streets compared to Lalibela; Mostly Simien trek guides trying to gather groups, but they don’t persist
  • Pretty easy to cover main points of interest and even attend Timkat on foot or via tuk-tuk
  • Mostly independent travelers; Easier to connect with others
  • Hotels are reasonably-priced for a single room
  • The royal complex is one of my favorite spots in Ethiopia

Cons

  • Pretty limited choice of good restaurants, like Masterchef and Four Sisters
  • Shopping is extremely limited with non-existent selection and awful quality
  • Hotels in Gondar are atrociously reviewed
  • The main points of interest can be seen in half a day if you come at a non-festival time. There isn’t much else to do in the city (and it is not a terribly interesting city center) unless you plan to head to the Simien mountains

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