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Ethiopia’s top five festivals

Travel writer Claire A Davies picked the following as top five Ethiopian Festivals. This informative article came just in time before Timkat celebration which is happening on Sunday January 19, 2020.

Timkat _ Ethiopia _ festivals
Timkat celebration. Photo credit : Ethiopian Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural  Heritage via ENA

By Claire A Davies
January 18, 2020

Ethiopia’s rich heritage of festivals are one of the best ways to appreciate the country’s strong sense of culture and identity. Ethiopians tend to be excitable when it comes to having a party, with streams of people in the white traditional white dress jostling in the streets as they run side by side to sing and chant.

While crowds may seem overwhelming initially, it’s best to join in and go with the flow. The joyful atmosphere is highly infectious,the pace fast,the rhythm relentless and liable to have you becoming one and part of the crowd. 

Most celebrations centre around religious beliefs. Although there may be a festival air,the mood of Ethiopians is also highly reverential of the festivals of their Orthodox Church.These elements can stir the emotions of the most hardened atheist.At these times, it’s easy to become swept along in the belief of many Ethiopians that they were God’s Chosen People and that Christianity, and indeed, mankind itself, all began right here.

The metropolis of Addis Ababa may be the beating heart of Ethiopia but the best places for festivals are around the country.

Timkat _ Ethiopia


This three day celebration marks Epiphany and the baptism of Christ. The highlight of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church for locals, it is also easily the most inspiring event for visitors. Priests and worshippers dance and chant in the streets carrying replicas of the Tabot (Ark of Covenant)that sit on the altar of every church.

Ethiopians believe that the true Ark of Covenant rests in the town of Aksum in the far north, however Timkat is most memorable in Gondar, where the hilly streets overflow with crowds of worshippers swathed in the white muslin robes.

Splashes of colour come from priest’s ceremonial parasols as the processions from each of Gondar’s 44 churches converge on the city centre. The combination of singing, chanting, drums and sistrums all echoing off Gondar’s surrounding mountain escarpments, make for an ethereal experience.

Timkat concludes with an all-night candlelit vigil at the 17th centre stone complex,Fasilias Baths.In the morning priests baptise the tabots in the water of the baths,following which the crowds dive into the pools shouting, splashing and chanting with joy.

Timkat takes place in late January.


Falling in early January in the Western calendar (Ethiopia follows its own calendar, the Julian system), Genna is the Orthodox Christmas. Genna is strictly a religious experience- you won’t find people exchanging gifts or piles of wrapping paper in the shops.

The highland town of Lalibela is the highlight for Genna. This UNESCO World Heritage site is home to a huge complex of churches carved directly into the mountain rock, hundreds of years old and reportedly built in a day by angels according to Orthodox believers.

Genna is marked by late-night services performed by priests singing centuries old hymns in the ancient language of Ge’ez use by the church. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims gather to watch the ceremony,all swathed in white.Set against the remote landscape of the Lasta mountains, the religious fervour felt by Ethiopians reverberates everywhere.

A light meal is taken at daybreak to mark the end of 40 days of fasting followed by a rich red spicy chicken stew known as doro wat– topped with an egg.A game similar to hockey– also known as genna is played in the afternoon.

Date: around 7th of January


The end of the rainy season heralds the celebration of Ireecha,the Oromo people’s gathering to mark the passing of dark to night and to give thanks to Waaqa or God. The biggest celebrations take place in Bishoftu just one hour’s drive from Addis where the crater lakes are seen as sacred.

More recently,Ireecha has been celebrated peacefully in Addis Ababa – despite security concerns following tension between ethnic groups in recent years.

Large crowds and processions form in the streets in traditional white clothing striped with bright colours.Oromo cultural dancing is also part of the scene as well as people sprinkling themselves with sacred water and holding tufts of green grass up to thank God.


Ethiopian ‘new year’ takes place in the month of Meskerem, around September time,following the cessation of three months of heavy rain.  Clear sunny days illuminate the fresh coat of green covering the highlands. 

“Enkutatash” means ‘gift of jewels’.  According to the Orthodox Bible,The Kebra Negast,Queen Sheba was an Ethiopian women. Travelling to King Solomon, she gave to him large amounts of gold and jewels.On return, her chiefs welcomed her with further jewels to replenish her treasury.

The holiday period lasts about a week, during which time people visit family, attend church and carry torches on the eve of Enkutatash itself. On the day, people slaughter sheep and hold feasts, usually within the family homes.


The long rains finally cease around September time and the highlands bloom with the distinctive yellow Meskel flower – rather like large daisies.

At this time, the Orthodox Church commemorates the discovery of the True Cross.Priests gather under glittering ceremonial parasols,surrounding replicas of the cross set on wood pyres which are then set on fire.

Depending on which way the cross falls, this traditionally heralds whether it will be a lucky year ahead.

Best place for Meskel: Meskel Square in Addis Ababa.


Timkat in Gondar is particularly popular so make sure you book your accommodation ahead of time. Lalibela hotels are also likely to fill up for Genna. 

Follow Claire A Davies on Twitter : @dispatchesfrom1


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