Festive Ethiopia - Timkat Madness in Gondar

Heat, huge crowds, continuous pushing and shoving, religious chants accompanied by war cries and the never ending tooting noise produced by vuvuzela-like instruments (those annoying things you heard at matches during the last world cup). This is Timkat (celebration of the Ephiphany) in Gondar. If you don't like any of the mentioned, this isn't the place for you. I didn't know any better, so I went. Every guide book I'd read on Ethiopia (well actually just two) claims that Timkat is Ethiopia's most colorful and exciting religious festival, while Gondar is supposedly the place to be for this two-day event. I liked Lalibela just fine and was ready to hang around there to see Timkat take place, but then decided to head off to Gondar, for the sake of experiencing a new place.

Experience a new place I did, though Gondar has quickly become one of my least favorite places in Ethiopia. It just ain't pretty and it has the feel of a forever underdeveloped town rather, there isn't the likeable rural vibe that Lalibela exuded.

In any case, I came here for Timkat and I somewhat foolishly paid in advance for a ridiculously overpriced room, so I figured I had to stay and witness this supposedly amazing event.

After I spent a few days in Gondar, it became apparent that I'd likely be in for a disappointment. A procession in a town with such ugly architecture, with so little character could not be very photogenic, simple as that. The most photogenic thing about it all were the priests and deacons, dressed in colorful garb. Whether that warrants  one to spend close to a couple of hundred dollars for three days in a mediocre hotel (that normally costs $10 per night) is something I'm not sure I'd be in favor of now.

You have likely caught on by now that I wasn't crazy about Timkat in Gondar, however, that didn't mean that the locals didn't absolutely love everything about it. Lots of happy faces, cheering and clapping. Ethiopians love this sort of stuff and that's great for them. At least the multitude of faces did provide some photo opportunities.

The only folks who weren't noticeably crazy about the whole thing (besides the foreigners) were the kids involved in the procession. You can see that the dude above was getting a little bored and probably dehydrated, and this was taken just a couple of hours into the procession.

If the scene of the child hanging off a huge cross attached to a moving carnival-like float took place in the "developed" world, the organisers would probably be in big trouble for child abuse. The little dude (there are two actually) was tied to the cross, exposed to the scorching sun (likely not given water) for at least a few hours. The cross was spun around quite often and so, it really amazed my how these kids didn't pass out or vomit during the procession. I guess ultimately it was an amusing sight and at these kinds of festivals that's all that ultimately matters.

No, the above image isn't from a riot, it's from the celebrations of Timkat. The city soon became full with testosterone-induced boys and young men, who ran back and forth screaming out some sorts of war chants. Anyone that got in their way was pushed aside. One group even ran over a man in a wheel chair, though they did make the effort to "put him back together". These war-like marches had a very aggressive, unpleasant feel to them and the agression occasionally spilt into fights between what might have been rivaling clans. Amazingly, I didn't see any serious injuries, but I did see a young man get a pretty intense punch to the head today. This was another reminder that I wasn't in the almost magical, spiritual Lalibela any more.

Crowd control at Timkat is very straight-forward and rather effective. You want to climb where you shouldn't? You get smacked with a big stick! Surprisingly those getting smacked often chuckle and usually back off. The whole thing is unusually light-hearted. Though you may see that machine gun on the security/policeman's shoulder, never once was a shot fired, at least not in my presence.

While the men and boys like running around shouting out war-cries at the top of their lungs and getting beaten with sticks for trying to jump the cue, the female participants take their pleasure in much more civilized activities - like singing and dancing. The main road of Gondar was filled with women and girls looking like they had reached nirvana through the power of music and dance.

The crowds all head to emperor Fasilidas' baths, this is where the main ceremony would take place the next morning. Once the sun set, the crowds lit candles, some continued to dance and sing, some prayed or listened to the prayers. Those who follow me on Facebook, would have recently discovered my love for candle-lit images. I sure as heck wasn't complaining when I saw this.

Some devotees remained at the baths, while others went home and came back again before sun-rise. Almost everyone came with a candle in hand, which made for the only moment during the event when the whole thing felt somewhat magical.

In the image above a woman is kissing the door-frame as is quite common at holy places in North Ethiopia.

I think my love for candle light comes from the fact that it makes some of the more mundane and uninteresting things look romantic and even a little mystical. Or maybe, it is because in the dark it's easier not to see all the cheesy crap that surrounded this festival.

I noticed this wonderful scene of a girl standing  with her candle, reading prayers in the roots of a tree, right next to a door from which more and more devotees entered the compound. I hung around for a while, snapping off a few frames. This is one of them.

Having arrived quite early, I had the chance to shoot candle-lit scenes to my heart's content. :)

Scenes like the one of the devotees lined up with their candles against the ancient wall of the emperor's bath were one of very few moments when I felt a sense of not knowing what time period I was in.

Everyone waited for sunrise at the compound. When the sun would rise, the time for the blessing of the water would come and the devotees (those lucky enough) could jump into the huge swimming pool-like bath and in turn be blessed themselves.

The swimming begins! Initially dosens of devotees jump into the bath and then more follow.

Unfortunately, like many things during Timkat, the whole swimming part was pretty lame. Just a bunch of dudes frolicking in the water like children. I suppose I might have had a different opinion on this, if I took a dip myself. The water was supposedly clean enough, as the bath was newly filled over a few days before the festival. It was not to be however, as the crowd was much too dense and I was certainly not devoted enough to fight through to join in.

More water fun, from a different angle.

As I exited the bath area I came across devotees drumming devotional tunes, singing songs and dancing.

The dancing, the horn-tooting and the general excitement continues as I type. Timkat was followed by St. Michael's day (today), which apart from the bathing thing is virtually like Timkat anyway, at least visually.

Now that the festivals are out of the way we will continue our journey at our own pace, without having to think "Oh, we have to be at such and such place by this date." That is much more my style, to be honest. Just me and Tanya, on the bike. Free like birds, ready for new experiences.