Ethiopia's Timkat draws crowds to ancient royal baths
Ethiopian Orthodox pilgrims jump into the Fasilides baths during the Timkat festival, in Gondar, on January 19, 2014 - by Carl de Souza
By mid-morning the sombre mood has turned jovial, and scores of people disrobe to submerge themselves in the blessed waters flanked by priests dressed in long, gold-embroidered gowns and towering headdresses.
The bathers are celebrating the baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River and are joined by hundreds of tourists who have come to the northern Ethiopian city of Gondar to see the annual celebration that highlights the country's rich and well-preserved religious heritage.
"Everybody really commits to this tradition and to this religion, it seems to be really popular and not something from history, it is vivid," said Olivier Michel, 28, who travelled from France to see the event.
This historical heritage draws hundreds of thousands of tourists to the country each year, making Ethiopia a unique destination for travellers looking for something different from East Africa's better-known safari or white sand beach destinations.
It is a heritage that has survived Ethiopia's rapid growth and development, obvious in its major cities -- Gondar included -- where new buildings and roads are constructed at a dizzying pace.
"Everybody continues the traditions, but at the same time you can see that the country is evolving, everything is changing. But it looks like the people really want to keep everything that makes them go together, what makes them have this common culture, so that's a great mix," Michel added, as crowds of people continued to pour into the pools to mark the holiday.
The celebration draws thousands of Ethiopia's Orthodox Christians, who make up almost 63 percent of the country's 91 million people, according to official figures.
It starts on the eve of Timkat, which means "epiphany", when Gondar's top eight priests transport cloaked tabots -- replicas of the Arc of the Covenant -- atop their heads to the baths in an elaborate procession through town, complete with lively song, dance and prayer.
The prayers continue overnight, with chanting that echoes throughout the city, as worshippers continue streaming into the stone baths, built by hand for Emperor Fasilledes in 1632 and now a UNESCO heritage site.
Local residents welcome the attention, and say they are happy to expose a slice of Ethiopia's history to the rest of the world.
"Tourists are coming here and they take in the ancient history of the country and of Gondar, they observe this, and they take it to their country, so it's very important," said Mequant Teshome, 73, dressed head-to-toe in white shrouds, called gabis in Ethiopia's Amharic language.
The head of Gondar's tourism bureau, Getahun Seyoum Endeshaw, said the city has seen a 50-percent increase in tourism in the past four years. Today, more than 25,000 people visit the city each year, which has had a cross-cutting impact, he said.
"Ethiopia is known for famous wars and other things, nowadays it is history. Nowadays, all things are changing, so the impact is social, economic and the image of the country has already started to change," he said.
Gondar, 725 kilometres (450 miles) from Addis Ababa and the former seat of the royal empire, is a popular stop for tourists travelling Ethiopia's "northern circuit" to see the storied rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and the Arc of the Covenant that sits covered in Axum, which Ethiopians have long claimed is the original brought from Jerusalem by Solomon 3,000 years ago.
For Dieter Prince, 77, a retired priest from Germany, the holiday is special because it is a national occasion celebrated by the whole country, not just devout Christians.
"What's unique is it's not so divided, the profane and the religious thing, it's united," he said.
"From this we can learn a lot from the Ethiopians."
Mequant, who comes to the baths every year, said he hopes the festival will travel beyond Ethiopia's borders to be celebrated on a global scale.
"This holiday is a national treasure for the country and I want this holiday to be celebrated all over the world, as a world treasure," he said.