Friday 19th January, 2018
Today is Timkat, Ephiphany, marking the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan by John the Baptist. A holy day, with the focus of the celebrations on Gondar, where as a ritual re-enactment pilgrims get baptised in the waters of the Fasilides Baths.
We get up very early, and head out with a bajaj at 6 am to Fasilides Baths. It is still dark. People have been praying and chanting here overnight, holding beeswax candles. As we join the quiet crowd streaming to the entrance gate, we purchase our own candles. Then we walk into a sea of quietly reading and praying people. It is a truly amazing sight, a sea of people, robed in white holding small candles, reading and softly chanting.
There is a dedicated seating area for overseas tourists to view the proceedings. It gives a first class view of people entering the water around the fortress for their holy baths. As can be predicted, we instead have opted to be in the crowd, to fully experience this morning ritual.
After dawn breaks, the crowd start to swell. By nine am there are people climbing in the trees that stand in the compound. The gates cannot handle the swelling crowds anymore, and the bamboo ramps that help people enter and leave the compound over the walls, are becoming stands to get a better view.
As the crowds start to sway, we all sway together, as we are packed in closer and closer.
The priests and bishop come out of the fortress swaying and chanting, and bless the waters of the baths. The crowd grows more excited. The pure pressure of people packed together is increasing, and there are still more people coming in.
By 10 O’clock we feel that the situation is not safe anymore, and we decide to head out and grab some breakfast. We manage to make our way out via one of the small gates, forcing our way through the crowds and past the police.
Armed guards and police are trying to control the crowds, but with limited success. People are crowding the bamboo ramps that were not designed to be stood on by so many people, they are scaling the walls, and are forcefully squeezing through the small gates. Children are carried forward by the sheer pressure of the crowd. No more room for candles, silent contemplation or prayers. Young men seem to start dominating the crowds now, and the atmosphere is changing subtly.
Once outside of the baths though, there is a festive atmosphere, it is the end of the fasting, time for new clothes and the sharing of big platters of food and especially meat.
In the afternoon we head out to the rooftop restaurant of one of the hotels in the centre of town, to see the procession of the tabots from Fasilides Baths back to their individual churches. They are all leaving in one procession, which splits up close to the Royal Enclosure to each go their own way.
Shortly after that procession has gone through, we see a funeral procession, for a 21 year old man who died this morning after falling out of a tree in the pool at the Fasilides baths. Not many Ethiopians can swim.
We have a drink at one of the local restaurants, listening to music and watching women shoulder dancing. It is wedding season in Ethiopia! Suddenly we hear a gunshot. The guards that are present at most venues quickly close the gate to the restaurant compound. After a while, and a lot of shouting and pointing, the gate opens up again and we can leave to return to our hotel.
This has been a great day, an amazing experience, despite the over crowding. And we were definitely happy to be in the crowd, being part of the experience! It has been a long day though, and another pizza, and some Rift Valley wine and whiskey is called for!
Travel Details and Tips:
Accomodation: Jantekel Hotel, Gondar
Tip: For those who like their alcoholic beverages, Ethiopia now has a drinkable home made wine that does not need mixing with coca cola like the Gouda wine to become drinkable. Rift Valley Wines was set up relatively recently and especially their reds are very nice!
An other common beverage is Arak, a locally made potent spirit. Different versions exists for different regions, and they are often sold in roadside stalls in old gin or whiskey bottles. It is much appreciated to return empty gin and whiskey bottles to these stalls.