Ethiopia, the land of extraordinary and breathtaking landscapes, has long been famous, even without Bob Geldof’s help. Dating back more than 3,000 years, Abyssinia and its stories of Queen of Sheba have had a resounding and lasting influence on Ethiopia’s rich culture, traditions and history. The country’s vast and diverse geographical contrasts, UNESCO rock-hewn churches, “untouched” communities in the Omo Valley, and colourful festivals captivate global travellers every year, especially the September celebration of Meskel – “Finding the true Cross.”
FINDING THE TRUE CROSS
Arguably the largest festival in Ethiopia’s calendar, aside from Easter, Meskel is the religious celebration of the discovery of the True Cross in the 4th century by Queen Eleni, also known as Saint Helena. According to the Orthodox story, Queen Eleni was inspired by a dream to light a giant bonfire of wood. And when she did, the smoke rose up high in the sky and returned to the ground at the exact same spot where the Cross – on which Christ had been crucified on – had been buried. Every year an estimated 200,000 people congregate at Meskel Square, in the center ofAddis Ababa, to celebrate the holiday of which the Square is named after.
SEA OF FLICKERING CANDLES
I have personally taken part in four Meskel celebrations. Every year is as memorable and unique as the first. The celebrations are marked by the lighting of a huge bonfire to re-enact the finding of the True Cross, and followed by a beautiful display of fireworks that light up the sky and faces of the hundreds of thousands of spectators.
Every year, the parade of spectators brave the goo-like mud from the rainy season, huge crowds, and sometimes, uncomfortable random body searches by the Federal Police for a glimpse of one of the world’s most inspiring and peaceful sights – 200,000 flickering candles, all glowing unanimously, boundless by the restrictions of race or religious preference.
Imagine standing shoulder-to-shoulder, toe-to-toe with thousands of calm onlookers wading in mud in peace, eagerly awaiting the cue to light their candles, which were distributed just moments before. In the distance, I could see the first candle being dipped into the centerpiece of the celebration, the raging bonfire. From that first candle, hundreds more were lit, then thousands, as people passed along their flame to one another. The warm glow from the candles gradually and organically engulfed the entire Square, infecting every single one of the spectators. Moments later, I was surrounded by a sea of flickering candle flames. The soft chanting and singing of festival-goers enveloped me. It was beautiful.
WHEN TO VIST
Meskel occurs on September 27 and on the 28th in leap years (17 Meskerem in the Ethiopian calendar). Booking your accommodations early is definitely a must as hundreds of thousands are expected to flood the country for the festivities.