Timkat, Christianity's ancient heartbeat in Ethiopia

Timkat, the Ethiopian Orthodox celebration of the Epiphany, is usually observed on January 19 (or 20, in a leap year). The largest of all Oriental Orthodox churches, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is one of the few precolonial churches of sub-Saharan Africa. The Church of St George (Bete Giyorgis in Amharic) in Lalibela, Ethiopia, is one of 11 monolithic churches carved out of rock in the 13th century. The most spectacular of them, Bete Giyorgis has simple but beautiful carved windows and its interiors are decorated with colorful painted icons. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The town of Lalibela, situated at an altitude of 2,800 meters in the highlands of Ethiopia, was only recently electrified and more than 1,000 of its approximately 10,000 inhabitants are priests. Originally known as Roha, the town was renamed after the 12th century King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela of the Zagwe dynasty, who commissioned the construction of the rock-hewn churches. One legend goes that the king, poisoned by his brother, fell into a deep death-like stupor in which he was transported to Heaven and instructed by God and St George to build the churches.

AFP PHOTO/CARL DE SOUZA

Ethiopian priests and monks walk during the annual festival of Timkat in Lalibela, Ethiopia. The festival celebrates the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. During Timkat, the Tabot, a model of the Ark of the Covenant, is taken out of every Ethiopian church for 24 hours and paraded during a procession in towns across the country. Over 80% of Ethiopians are estimated to be Orthodox Christians. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians believe the real Ark of the Covenant (a vessel containing the Ten Commandments) is held in Aksum. It is guarded by a select group of monks, whose sole commitment is to protect the sacred vessel.

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