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UNESCO Should Recognize Ethiopian Epiphany as Intangible Cultural Heritage

UNESCO Should Recognize Ethiopian Epiphany as Intangible Cultural Heritage

By Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD
Tigrai Online London 25 January 2015

UNESCO has already recognized Ethiopia’s most popular Meskel festival (the founding of the True Cross holiday) as one of the world’s intangible heritages and Ethiopians were appreciative of the constructive undertaking rendered by the UN agency for education, science, and culture. There is no doubt that Ethiopians would be more appreciative if UNESCO recognizes Timket (Ethiopian epiphany), which is as popular as Meskel, as yet another intangible Ethiopian heritage.

During the celebration of Timket on January 19, 2015, in honor of the Ethiopian customary tradition of exchanging good wishes for the holiday, one friend texted me a poster of Timket festival embellished with Ethiopian flags and accompanied by a quotation from Ephesians 4:5 that reads, “One Lord, one religion, one baptism”.  After I read the quote, I immediately sensed some fallacy with respect to ‘religion’, because if the latter was indeed part of the Ephesians quote, it would have categorically dismissed other religions and also disparaged the intent of the original message of Ephesians. I am not a Biblical scholar and my knowledge of the latter is limited, but my suspicion nonetheless paid off. Ephesians 4:5 actually reads, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism”.  

In point of fact, the “one baptism” rendering applies to all Christians all over the world as baptism is observed universally across the board in Christian communities. However, Timket festival is characteristically different from other Christian observations of the same holiday, because it is a religious as well as a secular festival in Ethiopia. It is in fact a grand social and cultural holiday in which Ethiopians of all ages, gender, and ethnic groups gather and celebrate in an incredibly festive mood.

To Ethiopian Christians and other Christians around the world, epiphany symbolically signifies the baptism of Jesus Christ at the River Jordan. The Ethiopian Timket, however, goes beyond symbolic religious virtue and embodies the many cultural values and ethos of almost unimaginable scope.

The faithful Ethiopians, thousands upon thousands of them, will converge near a body of water or Timkete-Bahir (pool, river, stream, or artificial fountain) to observe the celebration of the divine-liturgy, as early as 2 am in the morning. On the 18th of January (known as Kerem or eve of epiphany) the faithful have already taken their spaces around the water and they will not return home until the real celebration takes place on the 19th of January every year (or on the 20th of January on a leap year).

Although the faithful come to be blessed by the sacred water, they also genuinely come to escort the Tabots (replicas of the Ark of the Covenant) of their respective churches and monasteries. Theoretically, all churches are supposed to assemble at the Timket venue, but it may not be practical to bring all Tabots, given the limited spaces and the multitude of the faithful that have flocked into the extremely crowded water area. Addis Ababa alone has 160 churches and monasteries; the historic city of Gonder, famous for Timket celebration, is also known for its 44 Adbarat (churches and monasteries); and Lalibela is the proud home of the 11 rock-hewn churches, which are fascinations of the world. If we add Yimrehane-Christos to the Lalibela cluster of churches then we would have 12 famous churches that host thousands of people every Timket festival. In any case, even if all Tabots of all churches may not sojourn on the epiphany waters, most of the churches would represent themselves at the Timkete-Bahir.  In Tigray, the northernmost regional state of Ethiopia, where civilization of antiquity and the Ethiopian Christendom began, there are hundreds upon hundreds of churches that observe Timket every year, and of these churches 126 are rock-hewn. Unfortunately, out of the total rock-hewn churches in Tigray, 26 are ruined, 9 of them have become domiciles for monks, but 94 are still serving Sunday congregation and are actively engaged in sermons and other services.1

The Tabots of each church will be granted a temporary abode, that is, a designated tent; and no two saints will dwell under the same roof, though they could share contiguous turfs. Thus, by just counting the tents, one could safely figure out the number of churches represented in the epiphany squares, and for a diligent scholar or tourist it might require an extra effort to know the names of each Tabot associated with a corresponding saint.

At dawn, one of the high priests, in an effort to bless the water, will immerse the cross into the water while at the same time extinguishing a burning candle in the same body of water. The water and the candle are perceived as sacred by the pilgrims.  Following this ritual, the priest sprinkles the water unto the Me’emenan (believers), who know very well that they are not being baptized but commemorating the baptism of Jesus Christ, although the ritual signifies for them as sort of a purifying and cleansing magic.

The sprinkling of the sacred water is accompanied by hymn, first produced in the early seventh century CE by a literati genius known as Yared, who by the way is the first to come up with the writing of musical notations and systematically decoding the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church ecclesiastical chants. On top of hymn, the sprinkling of water is also accompanied by the symmetrical dances and drumming of the beautifully dressed priests, and by young men dressed like angels and blowing trumpets.

After the baptism is over, all churches will go back to their permanent abodes, again escorted by hundreds of chanting and dancing believers; and the only Tabot that stays around until the entire festival is over is the Tabot of the Archangel St. Michael. At the end of the religious Timket festival, St. Michael also returns but the crowd that came to celebrate stay and continue the secular Timket, which is fundamentally and ostensibly different from the baptism of Jesus festival. It seems that Ethiopians have devised such a festival for the sole purpose of converging in one spot in order to exchange cultural values such as ethnic dances.

The secular Timket is a culturally rooted Ethiopian holiday that is transmitted from generation to generation, and it is largely articulated by competition of dances between the various ethnic groups of Ethiopia. The Timket festival is an opportune moment in which, for example, the dances and songs of the Amhara, Tigray, Oromo, Gurage, and other nationalities are performed; at times to the point of frenzy. This is also the time where Ethiopians of all ages and sexes dance freely and wildly in order to demonstrate their ability of choreography and by default attract the opposite sex. In fact, the young men and women deliberately participate in the Timket festival with the intention to find a partner, and if possible a life partner. The Timket crowd is aware that the festival provides an excellent opportunity to find a boyfriend and/or a girlfriend, but those who come to exploit such an opportunity cannot afford to be bystanders; as a matter of course, they must articulate their wishes in the form of dances in front of all that have gathered and if possible cast lemon fruits at each other to demonstrate love and affection. Out of this spontaneous and orderly chaos emanate some successful couples who would be destined to evolve a fiancé/fiancée relationship, and some of them are even engaged on the Timket arena and in the midst of the crowd.

Because young men and women Ethiopians are aware of the social relations of secular Timket, they come with their best dress for the day. This practice of looking good in terms of dress and enhancing beauty is reinforced by the Ethiopian proverb Le’timket Yalhone Libs Yi’be’tates (Amharic) or Ne’timket ZeyKon Qemish Yi’be’tates (Tigrigna), and roughly translated into English it means, ‘Let this cloth be shredded if it is not meant for Timket’.  The proverb clearly indicates how serious and altruistic Ethiopians are when it comes to their epiphany holiday.

More than the young men, it is the young women who look sharp during the Timket festival. On top of their nature endowed beauty, the Ethiopian women are overwhelmingly crafty in putting makeups together and blend them unto their beautiful faces. They put on traditional makeups such as Khul (Amharic) or Kuhli (Tigrigna) as shades (nowadays modern makeups as well) and make the best hairstyle, preferably Shuruba (Ethiopian hairdressing) and some are anointed with oil on their faces to the extent of dripping all over their face and necks. The latter practice is now increasingly phasing out except in the rural areas.

The Ethiopian women who beautify themselves during Timket are not pretentious in their deliberate magnetic appearance. They have to seduce the young men and the latter are cognizant of the romantic appeal of their female counterparts. Both of them, tacitly confirm that Timket is for a relationship of the opposite sexes, and it is either to initiate new relationship or an opportunity for individuals who were never married to find a partner and settle down. The young men who participate in the Timket festival also exhibit different performances such as holding long sticks painted with green, yellow, and red (the Ethiopian flag), and while dancing they sing Timket songs such as Hay Loga Ho and Mariam Aster’eyo (the revealing Virgin Mary) in an effort to enjoy the undivided attention of the beautiful women around them.

In Timket, the Ethiopians say, even some individuals who never socialize will mingle with the crowd and they are “baptized” by the festive mood, and as a result they are renewed, rejuvenated, and rehabilitated. They in fact would become a new person and would have a chance to meet some chemistry in a relationship. One Amharic song that depicts well the above scenario in general and the renewed persons in particular is Kermo YiMetal Yal’mote Sew (a person who is not dead will eventually show up after a long hiatus). Metaphorically, the song implies that even ostracized, aloof, paranoid, and “dead” people will mingle in the Timket festival.


Timket festival, thus, is not simply a religious holiday as pointed out above. It is very much a construction and reaffirmation of phenomena, relationship, love, and a resolution to exploit and meaningfully utilize what the Ethiopian social milieu provides and permits. In the tradition of interpretations of cultures and the legacy of Clifford Greetz’ s “thick description”, I have made an attempt to expound the true meaning of Timket festival in Ethiopia. If a culture of any given people is superficially explained (“thin description”), it could very well be a distortion of that culture and also a misleading methodology especially for students who are engaged in ethnographic and historical research. On the other hand, if we employ “thick description”, we will end up grasping the essence, meaning, and structure of a given culture and it is in the latter sense that I wanted to appeal to UNESCO to seriously consider the Ethiopian epiphany as an intangible cultural heritage.

Instead of simply appealing, however, I like to engage UNESCO with its own definition of tangible heritage and then come up with my own rationale. What is intangible cultural heritage? According to UNESCO,

 The term ‘cultural heritage has changed content considerably in recent decades, partially owing to the instruments developed by UNESCO. Cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collection of objects. It also includes traditions and living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.2

On top of the above definition, UNESCO also defines intangible cultural heritage as 1) traditional, contemporary and living at the same time; 2) inclusive; 3) representative; and 4) community-based.3

Before a general consensus on the definition of intangible heritage was agreed upon, an important International Conference on Globalization and Intangible Cultural Heritage, jointly sponsored by UNESCO and the UN University in Tokyo, was convened on August 26-27, 2004, in Tokyo, Japan. For the Conferences proceedings, the Introduction was contributed by Koichuro Matsuura, the Director-General of UNESCO and his arguments, as shown below, furthermore reinforce my own rationale that UNESCO must indeed recognize Ethiopian epiphany as intangible heritage. Here is how Matsuura puts it:

Cultural dialogue and the preservation of cultural diversity has always been part and parcel of the mandate of UNESCO, as embodied in its constitution….intangible cultural heritage represents the major wealth of countries of the South, where it is alive and rich. Now that it is beginning to be recognized as equally important as the physical or material heritage that has developed primarily in the North, there is a resulting awareness of the fact that countries of the South have an extraordinary cultural heritage too.4  

The Ethiopian epiphany or Timket is quite a fitting in both of UNESCO’s definitions and Matsuura’ s convincing advocacy on behalf of Southern countries heritage, of which Ethiopia is one country rich of such heritages, including of course its unique epiphany . In fact, as I have explained above, all the criteria set forth by UNESCO are met by the Ethiopian Timket, and for this reason alone UNESCO should recognize this community-based, idiosyncratic but shared  Ethiopian tradition as intangible cultural heritage.              


1Ghelawdewos Araia, Cultures That We Must Preserve and Reject (two volumes in Tigrigna and Amharic) 2005/2008. Books can be found via www.africanidea.org

2UNESCO official website


4Koichuro Matsuura, International Conference on Globalization and Intangible Cultural Heritage, August 26-27, 2004, Tokyo, Japan

All Rights Reserved. Copyright © Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA), 2015. Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia can be contacted via dr.garaia@africanidea.org

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