An Ethiopian woman dressed in white from head to toe sweeps a long red carpet in the middle of a wide street in Addis Ababa. She is surrounded by tens of thousands of people chanting in the Amharic national language, clapping and dancing to the beat of drums. Some people are in the streets, while others crowd balconies of apartment buildings and restaurants to observe the procession.
This is Ketera, the eve of Timket, a three-day religious celebration of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by John the Baptist.
Timket in Ethiopia takes place every year in January on the 10th day of Terr on the Ethiopian calendar. In 2015, it took place on Jan. 19. Timket is a celebration of the Epiphany for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, with major ceremonies each year in Gondar, Addis Ababa, Bahir Dar and Lalibela. Ethiopians living abroad travel back home for the holiday.
Ketera begins when deacons lead a procession carrying replicas of the Ark of the Covenant, known as tabots. They wear long, colorful robes with gold designs, hats with tassels, and carry umbrellas and intricate gold crosses.
Yikunnoamlak Mezgebu, professor of language and linguistics at Addis Ababa University and a former deacon, says that the word Ketera is Amharic for “ambush,” referring to one group waiting for another to go to the water where Jesus was baptized. On Ketera, deacons march — wearing tabots on their heads — from the church to a field, the representation of the river of Jordan.
The tabots are placed in an area marked off by rope and surrounded by guards in blue camouflage uniforms.
People push to the front to watch the ceremony. Children sit on their fathers’ shoulders to get a better view. Older children and teens play games in the field, making bets on who can knock down Coke bottles with a single ball.
Priests lead the ceremony with prayers and songs in Amharic.
At 8 a.m. the next morning, the priests eat breakfast and then start the procession of the tabots in the field. They prepare Holy Water to spray on the crowds. They chant, followed by chants from younger priests, Sunday school classes and children.
Fissehatsion Demoz, an instructor at the Holy Trinity Theological College in Addis Ababa, says the day of baptism “is the day in which we are brought the salvation of our sins.”
Men climb fences near the tabots, bringing out hoses to spray people with holy water. The crowds shout and chant as the water splashes them.
Near the gated fences are deacons, priests and others marching to the beat of drums, chanting, singing.
The three-day celebration is unique to Ethiopia.
“The number one thing is reborn. Unless we are reborn in the womb of the river of Jordan, then we are not considered Christians,” explains Dean Yirgalem Ashagrie of Bahir Dar. “It is during Timket time that many cultural festivities are celebrated. Ethiopia is a country of many nationalities having their own culture, therefore they show during Timkat.
“… Everything should be for Timket. You celebrate your birthday; I celebrate my birthday, then who else celebrates? Christ celebrates his birthday with specialty.”
Maggie McDaniel is the author of this article. For questions or comments, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.