Timkat Festival in Ethiopia

Lonely Planet Travel Editor Tom Hall is on a mission to discover 52 of the most awe-inspiring places to visit across the world. This week he discovers the delights of Rock Churches and Timkat in Ethiopia.

Timkat, Ethiopia

Ethiopia is a feast for the senses like no other African destination. For starters, Ethiopia uses its own calendar to determine the year. It uses its own system of time, too. While we would associate six o’clock with dawn and dusk, in Ethiopia the clock strikes twelve at the start and end of each day.

Ethiopia is a seemingly impossible mix of ancient Christianity, Middle Eastern hospitality and sub-Saharan eccentricity. Throw in Africa’s finest historic buildings, stereotype-busting food and only a few thousand tourists per year and you’ve got one of the world’s most adventurous destinations waiting.

Travelling Around Ethiopia

For all of its quirks as a destination, Ethiopia has a well-trodden Historic Route – with a convenient daily Ethiopian Airlines link stopping at each point of interest. After settling in to the bustling capital, Addis Ababa, it’s a short hop on to Bahir Dar, gateway to Lake Tana’s historic monasteries and the once-mighty Blue Nile Falls.

Next stop is Gonder, a bustling market town complete with an unlikely Camelot-style castle complex dating from the fifteenth century.

Rock Churches

The real show-stopper hides away in the jaw-dropping highlands in the north of the country. Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches would be impressive enough were they an open-air museum or an archaeological site dedicated to these eleven magnificent medieval structures.

The real joy of finding Lalibela, whether you arrive via a two-day bus ride from the capital or take the winding road to the town from the one-horse airfield, is that its spiritual heart is alive and well.

The passageways, caves and crypts that link the churches hum with the chanting of monks and priests, and the smell of incense wafts around the town. For a UNESCO World Heritage site, and one of Christianity’s great treasures, Lalibela is refreshingly untouched.

Life revolves around the churches and the market, where mountain farmers bring produce by donkey along precipitous paths winding past more rock churches dotted around the countryside.

Timkat Celebrations

There’s no bigger event in the Ethiopian calendar than Timkat, the celebration of Epiphany. Every January 19th (or 20th in a leap year) pilgrims gather at key sites in Ethiopia for the displaying of the Tabot, the model of the Ark of the Covenant by the local priest.

The Tabot sits on the altar of Ethiopian churches and is normally hidden from view. Timkat also includes dancing, songs and processions by locals and holy men dressed in their finest.

Planning your trip to Ethiopia

Ethiopia is an inexpensive place to travel once you’re there. Book early to get the best prices for flights in January. The country has good facilities, including accommodation to cater to all budgets. English is spoken but not widely by those not working in tourism.

Further information

Bypass the wealth of odd websites about the Ark of the Covenant and head for Tourism Ethiopia for the lowdown on the country.

If you want just a splash of myth and legend to whet your appetite, The Sign and the Seal by Graham Hancock is a gripping read and has a journey to Ethiopia at its heart.

© 2009 Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd