I, pil­grim

Pil­grim­ages are the be­gin­nings of our ob­ses­sion with travel, and Timkat, to be held in Ethiopia this Jan­uary, is one of the world’s most beau­ti­ful, dis­cov­ers pho­to­jour­nal­ist Ian McNaught Davis

Getaway (South Africa) - - Travel -

I’ve been squeezed into a shud­der­ing, wheez­ing bus that swells with peo­ple – old men in frayed fe­do­ras, breast­feed­ing moth­ers, boys who hopped on to sell bis­cuits and haven’t both­ered to get off. Drums thump through tinny speak­ers, lay­ered with shrill ul­u­la­tions and ec­static singing. Hand­fuls of chat (a mildly in­tox­i­cat­ing leaf chewed as a stim­u­lant) are passed around. Pas­sen­gers make signs of the cross as we pass ram­shackle churches. More peo­ple get on. An­tic­i­pa­tion throbs and hums through­out the rick­ety bus as it lum­bers through the high­lands, sidestep­ping in­dif­fer­ent cat­tle. We pass bare­foot chil­dren in fields, too duty-bound to join us. Eu­ca­lyp­tus trees, de­scen­dants of ones im­ported from Mada­gas­car by Em­peror Mene­lik in the 1800s, line these plains. They’ll be­come the frame­work in mud huts. The bus doesn’t stop fill­ing. No­body gets off. Every­one is go­ing to Gon­dar. We’re here be­cause a fish­er­man from the Mid­dle East was bap­tised by a lo­cust con­nois­seur named John 1 986 years ago. Al­though the Ethiopian cal­en­dar in­sists it was 1 978 years ago, and also that this is the year 2008. Ethiopia has a dif­fer­ent cal­en­dar, time and al­pha­bet – all proud re­minders of its un­colonised sta­tus. In the month of Terr in their 13-month cal­en­dar, the 400-year-old town of Gon­dar be­comes a vor­tex that pulls masses of pil­grims from the out­er­most reaches of the coun­try to­wards it. They come on planes, on the backs of trucks, on buses and on foot. They cross the Blue Nile and travel on roads that curl around vast lakes and slice through golden-brown plains bristling with teff (the na­tional grain). All of them are drawn by Ethiopia’s un­wa­ver­ing re­source: faith. They are trav­el­ling for Timkat – the Ethiopian Ortho­dox Chris­tian Church’s cel­e­bra­tion of Epiphany, which com­mem­o­rates the bap­tism of Je­sus in the River Jor­dan. All pil­grims will be bap­tised in the Fasilides Bath, built in the 1600s.

There are sev­eral ac­counts of how Ethiopia be­came a Chris­tian na­tion be­fore mis­sion­ar­ies scram­bled through Africa. And it seems that in Ethiopia, his­tor­i­cal facts can be as fluid as the Blue Nile that me­an­ders through it. One of the pre­ferred ver­sions is the story of the boy in a boat. Two young brothers, Abuna Se­lama and Ede­sius, had be­gun a jour­ney by sea from present-day Le­banon. It was plain sail­ing

un­til they passed the Red Sea and swash­buck­ling ruf­fi­ans mas­sa­cred every­one ex­cept for the boys. They were sold as slaves and as­sim­i­lated into the Ak­sum­ite Em­pire in present-day north­ern Ethiopia. But bright and per­sua­sive Abuna Se­lama charmed his way out of slav­ery and be­came the best friend of the prince of Ak­sum. He con­verted the prince to Chris­tian­ity be­fore head­ing to Egypt, where he be­came a bishop. With his new-found cler­i­cal qual­i­fi­ca­tions, he bap­tised the prince and be­gan con­vert­ing the masses. And the rest is his­tory. Oth­ers say Chris­tian­ity ar­rived via the Nine Saints, a rag­tag per­form­ing troupe from the Le­vant who won hearts and minds with magic tricks and col­lec­tions of gi­ant snakes. An­other ver­sion of his­tory. Whichever way the gospel came to the moun­tain em­pire, it made things a lot eas­ier for the Je­suit mis­sion­ar­ies who ar­rived in 1554. Gon­dar was once known as the Camelot of Africa, sprawl­ing with op­u­lent palaces, wide­spread plan­ta­tions and mag­nif­i­cent gar­dens. To­day pil­grims pour from bedrag­gled buses, hur­ry­ing to the Fasilides Bath. Here, priests will pa­rade the tabot – a replica of the Ark of the Covenant. Tonight, the pil­grims will hold a can­dlelit vigil in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the an­nual mass bap­tism at dawn. As they rush down the hill that leads to the pool, devo­tees put their sham­mas on, a white, gauze-thin toga worn over the head and shoul­ders. Every­one – from the politi­cian to the teff farmer’s daugh­ter – is lev­elled by the shamma’s em­brace. Trib­u­taries of devo­tees cas­cade down the slopes of Gon­dar, swirling around the Fasilides Bath. They stare at a mass of wa­ter that will be de­clared holy at sunrise. Roots of age-old trees slither through gaps in the stone walls, pry­ing them apart. This sa­cred bath, which is some­what larger than an Olympic­sized pool, has with­stood raids from Su­danese dervishes and the bombs of the Bri­tish army. Night de­scends on the medieval ru­ins. Pil­grims light each other’s can­dles. Chil­dren chase each other while teenagers gos­sip and flirt. Clus­ters of priests

‘Trib­u­taries of devo­tees cas­cade down the slopes of Gon­dar, swirling around the Fasilides Bath. They stare at a mass of wa­ter that will be de­clared holy at sunrise’

sing hymns in tents. But most of the pil­grims are asleep on the grass – ex­hausted from their jour­ney, hud­dling to­gether like mus­sels.

Sun­beams peel over the moun­tains. Across the world, Ortho­dox Chris­tians wel­come the holy day. In Ar­me­nia, be­liev­ers are lin­ing up to kiss a sa­cred cross af­ter a week of fast­ing. Bul­gar­ian devo­tees pre­pare to dive into the icy Tundzha River to fetch a cross hurled by a priest. In Ro­ma­nia, priests douse horses in holy wa­ter be­fore the an­nual Epiphany horse races. And in Gon­dar, pil­grims sing as they press against the walls of the Fasilides Bath. Shards of light scat­ter through the leaves of age­less trees. Fam­i­lies squish to­gether on makeshift benches. Boys scram­ble on each other’s shoul­ders to climb up trees. The crowd watches the priests ap­pear. Dressed in their Timkat re­galia, they pray in the an­cient Semitic lan­guage of Ge’ez. Af­ter a series of ut­ter­ings and solemn nod­ding, the wa­ter is de­clared

holy and ex­plodes into a storm of joy­ful bomb­drops, back­flips and belly flops. Bot­tled, gulped, splashed, smeared – the wa­ter spreads through the froth­ing mass, drench­ing sham­mas. Peo­ple take self­ies of their wet, grin­ning faces; hash­tag Timkat, hash­tag blessed. ‘My fam­ily comes here ev­ery year,’ a busi­ness­man from Ad­dis Ababa tells me. ‘This is very spe­cial for us.’ He al­ways takes a bot­tle of wa­ter home for fam­ily mem­bers who can’t make it. He strokes the corn­rows of his daugh­ter’s hair, glis­ten­ing with droplets of blessed wa­ter. Af­ter hours of splash­ing and wal­low­ing in the sa­cred wa­ter, joy­ful shrieks through mega­phones pierce the air. A pa­rade has be­gun. Mu­si­cians and dancers strut along­side Bib­li­cal-themed floats on trail­ers pushed up the hill to­wards the cen­tre of Gon­dar. As the pil­grims drift to­wards the holy car­ni­val, the old and the in­jured can have their time with the con­se­crated wa­ters. A one-legged man on crutches leans over the edge of the pool. He calls and mo­tions to a man stand­ing waist­deep in the wa­ter. The man fills his bot­tle and squeezes it. A loop­ing arc of holy wa­ter soars to­wards the one-legged man. He winces from the chilly splash, locks his el­bows into his crutches and stands still, smil­ing. He stares at the daz­zling re­flec­tions of the sun danc­ing across the wa­ter’s sur­face. Draw­ing a deep breath, he hops on his foot to an­gle him­self to­wards the gates of the Fasilides Bath. He stabs his crutches in be­tween the an­cient cob­ble­stones – sparkling with holy wa­ter, pol­ished smooth by the feet of re­deemed souls.

‘Mu­si­cians and dancers strut along­side Bib­li­cal-themed floats on trail­ers pushed up the hill to­wards the cen­tre of Gon­dar’

FROM ABOVE Later on, a devo­tee rev­els in an emp­tier Fasilides Bath, where mass bap­tisms had taken place all day; white is tra­di­tion­ally worn at Timkat – even touches of moder­nity, such as don­ning a stet­son, are in the ap­pro­pri­ate colour. OP­PO­SITE Two boys dressed as an­gels form part of an elab­o­rate pro­ces­sion from the bap­tism site to the cen­tre of Gon­dar.

FROM LEFT A pil­grim awaits his chance to re­ceive a bless­ing; once the wa­ter has been de­clared holy by the clergy, peo­ple can bap­tise them­selves and oth­ers; women in tra­di­tional dress dance in a bun­a­bet (cof­fee bar) that pro­vides caf­feine kicks for weary pil­grims.

FROM TOP A boy on a bus bound for Gon­dar – Ortho­dox Chris­tians con­verge here from all over the coun­try for Timkat; women wait­ing for the clergy to de­clare the wa­ter holy. OP­PO­SITE Mak­ing a splash in the Bath, where 17th cen­tury Em­peror Fasilides and fel­low roy­als used to swim – in goatskin life jack­ets, no less.

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