“Ethiopian religious festivals like Meskel, Ethiopian Christmas, Ethiopian Easter and Timket have become major travel experiences for our visitors,” says Desale Mitiku Asfaw, CEO, Grand Holidays Ethiopia Tours.
While Ethiopia is also home to the oldest settlement of Muslims in the world, who now represent 34% of the 113 million population, there even are very small amount of black Jews who have not emigrated to Israel.
The bulk of the Ethiopian population is Christian at 63% with 44% of them affiliated with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Christianity first was adopted in Ethiopia in the Fourth Century and, as a result, there are deep traditions of various religious festivals and numerous functioning religious sites. Ethiopia has also been mentioned in the bible more than 44 times.
Two of the most important places to visit for tourists who enjoy religious history or are part of a religious pilgrimage are St. Lalibela and Axum.
Lalibela, home of eleven “rock hewn” churches, all carved in the mountains from the top down in the twelfth century at the direction of Emperor Lalibela, are magnificent examples of early churches in Africa, All of these churches are still functioning, so one can attend services with the local worshipers and receive a blessing from the presiding priest.
The most famous of the eleven churches is the Church of Saint George, which is often featured in Ethiopian promotional materials. From a distance, this church looks like a cross carved in the mountain top. When visitors finally get close to it, however, they discover that the cross is only the rooftop shape of a three-story church. At various festivals throughout the year, the Church of Saint George is populated with worshipers dressed all in white, which makes the experience dynamic, as well as spiritual.
Axum is also a very special religious site and home of the Axumite Kingdom of the Fourth Century. The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion was built during the reign of Erzana, the first Christian ruler, and has been rebuilt several times since then.
Axum is famous for its obelisks and religious festivals, including a moving midnight candlelit celebration on Easter. It is believed to be the home of the Ark of the Covenant, held under the auspices of the Church of Our Lady and theoretically brought there by Menelik I after visiting with his father King Solomon in ancient Israel. Menelik’s mother was the Queen of Sheba.
Some of the most important festivals with celebrations throughout Ethiopia are Meskel, commemorating the finding of the True Cross; Timket, the marking of Epiphany; and Fasika, which is Easter. Ethiopia also has a large holiday for Enkutatash, its marking of New Year, which usually falls in September, not unlike the new year for Jews, which is Rosh Hashana. Ethiopia ties its new year to the end of the rainy season.
Meskel marks the finding of the True Cross in the fourth century by Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great. It is held on September 17 on the Ethiopian calendar, corresponding to September 27 on the Gregorian calendar.
Timket is one of the greatest festivals in Ethiopia, commemorating the Baptism of Christ by Saint John in the Jordan River. It is celebrated on Ethiopia’s January 11, corresponding to January 19 on the Gregorian calendar.
Ethiopian Christmas or Lidet in Ethiopia falls on December 29 (Ethiopian) or January 7 (Gregorian). This is highly celebrated around the rock-hewn churches of St. Lalibela with pilgrims coming from inaccessible valleys and far-off hamlets on barefoot walking for weeks and months.
“We find that learning how religion was experienced here in the early centuries in Africa has become a focus for many religious groups, as well as the general touring public. People are fascinated to worship with our Ethiopian congregants, receive blessings, learn about the various regional church crosses, and see how the Bible stories were taught from paintings. It is also amazing how accessible original Bibles, religious manuscripts, and artifacts still are here in Ethiopia, compared to other parts of the world.” Desale added.
“Our standard itineraries usually include a visit to Lalibela and the rock-hewn churches and a visit to Axum,
“When appropriate for the group, Gonder and the Monasteries on Lake Tana are added. We know that religious tourism will be one of our greatest success stories in the next decade.”