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
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.