ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, Jan 19 – Under a blazing sun, a procession carrying a replica of the Ark of the Covenant marched on a path of red carpets through the streets of Ethiopia’s capital, sending believers to their knees in reverence.
The occasion was Timkat, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s celebration of Jesus Christ’s baptism that began Thursday afternoon and concluded Friday.
Held annually and second in importance only to Christmas in the eyes of the church, the tradition sees the replica Ark that every Ethiopian Orthodox church normally keeps out of public view brought outside.
Shaded beneath canopies of blue, red and gold, the precious receptacle is then paraded through the streets.
For the churches of the capital Addis Ababa, priests carry their Ark known as a Tabot to an open field where it is kept overnight before being returned after an early morning mass baptism during which Orthodox priests douse crowds of believers with holy water.
“This is our culture and tradition, and a religious symbol for us,” said Belay Shiferaw, one of tens of thousands of Orthodox faithful, cloaked in in white, who thronged the capital’s roads to witness the processions.
The tradition dates to the time of the country’s first emperor Menelik I, the founder of the Ethiopian empire who is traditionally believed to be the son of the Biblical Queen of Sheba and King Solomon.
Church lore says Menelik I took the Ark of the Covenant from the Jews in Jerusalem because they had lost faith and were no longer observing God’s commandments.
Even though they are copies of the original Ark that Orthodox adherents say is now housed in the northern Ethiopian city of Axum, the replicas carried through the streets of the capital are considered so holy that young men unroll lengths of carpet beneath the clergymen so their feet do not have to touch the asphalt.
Following them were musicians playing the begena, a harp-like instrument used for church functions whose strings are made from sheep guts.
In the countryside, people celebrating Timkat dive into rivers to simulate Christ’s baptism, but finding a suitable body of water amid Addis Ababa’s sprawl is impractical.
As the sun rose after a night spent praying over the assembled Arks, Orthodox priests mounted platforms overlooking a field normally used by the capital’s footballers and aspiring marathoners and hosed down thousands of assembled believers with holy water.
“I’m feeling very satisfied and, at the same time, I feeling like all my sins were washed away,” said Teklie Fikre, whose reliance on crutches did not stop him from pushing his way through the crowd to be baptised.