Ethiopia is an old land of towering mountains and deserts and impossibly blue lakes strewn across the grassy highlands like scattered jewels. Mans first beginnings were in the arid lowlands of the Awash while the highlands to the west nurtured the Copts and their form of Christianity that came there from Egypt in the 4th century. The queen Sheba is reputed to have graced this land and her son Menelik began the Solomonic Empire.
Somewhat later, the priest king Prester John built an isolated Christian empire that rivaled many of its Islamic neighbors. Ethiopia is the only country in Africa to have ever developed a written language, Geez, which is still used by Coptic priests and monks who read from parchment bibles in rock-hewn churches. Surprisingly, not much has changed and Ethiopia remains today a world-class destination for the thoughtful traveler.
Among Ethiopia Coptic Christian traditions is the September Meskel Festival marking the finding of the true cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. The festival is ancient; dating back 1,600 years and it is celebrated with yellow Meskel daisies placed on top of huge bonfires that are light in the evening in front of the throngs of celebrators. Ornately robed priests carrying silver Coptic crosses dance with their followers around the fires singing and chanting and carrying flaming torches. The flowering of the cross-shaped Meskel daisies also marks the end of the 3-month long rainy season and the return of the sun.
Timket, or the Feast of the Epiphany, is celebrated in the January. The 3-day event commemorates the baptism of Christ and is one of the most colorful Ethiopian festivals.
The night before the Timket, priests take the Tabot (which symbolises the Ark of the Covenant, containing the Ten Commandments) from each church to a tent at a consecrated pool or stream. There is frenetic activity, including the ringing of bells, blowing of trumpets and the burning of incense. In Addis Ababa, tents are pitched at Jan Meda, to the northeast of the city centre. At 02h00, mass is celebrated, attended by crowds of people carrying lighted oil lamps. At dawn, the priest uses a ceremonial cross to extinguish a candle burning on a pole in a nearby river. Inevitably, some of the congregation leap into the river. The Tabots are then taken back to the churches in procession, accompanied by horsemen, while the festivities continue.