Ethiopia’s most famous festivals are all annual events on the Christian calendar, the best known being Timkat (often referred to as Ethiopian Epiphany) and Meskel (the Finding of the True Cross). These holidays are celebrated in all Christian areas but attract large numbers of local pilgrims and international tourists to the likes of Lalibela, Aksum and Gondar, meaning that accommodation prices rocket and rooms can be difficult to find.
Jan 20 (Jan 19 in leap years). Countrywide. More important to Orthodox Christians than Christmas (which is celebrated quite sedately 12 days earlier), this three-day festival commemorates Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan River. It is one of the few occasions when the tabot (replica of the Ark of the Covenant) is removed from church altars; it’s then swaddled in colourful cloth and paraded around at the head of a procession. Timkat is a particularly spectacular occasion in Gondar, when Fasil’s Pool is filled with water and hundreds of eager participants leap in to re-enact the baptism. It is also a big event in Lalibela.
Sept 12 (Sept 11 in leap years). Countrywide. The country’s most important secular holiday, Enkutatash, or Ethiopian New Year, is celebrated vigorously throughout Ethiopia, with a similar party atmosphere to New Year festivities anywhere in the world. Traditionally, the date is also associated with the Queen of Sheba’s arrival back in Aksum after her visit to King Solomon in Jerusalem 3000 years ago.
Sept 27 (Sept 28 in leap years). Countrywide. This colourful spring festival, which shares its name with the yellow daisy-like flowers that blanket the highlands in September, commemorates an ancient legend that Empress Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine, was led to the buried True Cross on which Jesus was crucified in 326 AD. The festival is highly significant to Ethiopian Christians, who claim that a fragment of the cross, given to Emperor Dawit I in the early fifteenth century, is now stored at Gishen Maryam monastery, to the northwest of Dessie. The best place to be for Meskel is Aksum or at Meskel Square in Addis Ababa. The centrepiece of the festival is the burning of a massive pyre as colourful processions of priest and worshippers look on.