Ethiopian Epiphany 2018 Trinity Church Pilgrimage to northern Ethiopia for the epiphany festival of Timkat

Ethiopia is a land of vibrant color and vivid contrast. Modern wealth, by western standards, is in short supply, and yet there is a super-abundance of spiritual and cultural richness that spans millennia, and an intensely warm affection that characterizes daily encounter.

The religious practice of northern Ethiopia, Christian since the fourth century, is at once regally solemn and exuberantly joyful. Eighteen pilgrims from Trinity Church in New York City traveled there during the feast of the Epiphany, Ethiopia’s largest religious celebration, to immerse ourselves in this spiritual and cultural abundance. This is a brief daily record of that journey.

For a fuller explanation of why we are going to Ethiopia read HERE.

And for more about why we go on pilgrimage in general, read HERE and HERE.

For a look back on my previous pilgrimage to Ethiopia for Timkat click below

Day 1: The Journey Begins

Every pilgrimage starts when the heart first stirs and says “I need to do this.” And it starts at the front door, and often with a long journey. For us it is a 17-hour flight followed by 4 hours of sleep followed by another domestic flight and an early morning vigil the next day - we’re definitely going both feet in, and over our heads!
We begin - all anticipation for what is ahead.

Day 2: Epiphany, Part 1

After arriving from Addis Ababa in the early morning, we enter Ethiopia’s medieval capitol of Gonder via its 16th-century castle. This is the town where will be celebrating Timkat (Epiphany).

The group’s first taste of Ethiopia’s rich past.
Indian, Arab, and Portuguese influences flow together in this place
Lions were kept here even until Haile Selassie’s time

Then we move down the road to immerse ourselves in one of Ethiopia’s most beautiful churches, the icon-rich Debre Berhan Selassie ( Trinity Church!).

Its interior is a glorious tapestry of frescoes illustrating all the favorite Ethiopian saints stories.
Detail of the ceiling — “There are angels hovering round” became a song we sang throughout the trip,
Our guide, Emmanuel, unpacks the detail surrounding us
Ethiopia’s “Mona Lisa” — her eyes seem to follow you wherever you stand
Prayer sticks for the faithful — helpful during 4-hour long services!
Like at home at NYC’s Trinity Church, prayerbook and camera, liturgy and tourism, had to navigate each other everywhere we went. The boundaries were remarkably flexible and generous, and when they needed to be clear, they were!
A wheelbase becomes a church bell, the sacred and common combine in wonderful ways everywhere.

After lunch we plunge into the first day of Timkat, which gathers all the churches in processions from every corner of the city in solemn yet exuberant joy. The sheer scale of it is overwhelming, but what is more moving is the full-hearted devotion of every age, especially the young.

Even the more minor processions are grand. Under the cluster of processional umbrellas is a Tabot — a replica of the Ark of the Covenant. Each church has one, and brings it out on special days.
(That’s us, threaded down the right side of the procession.)
The procession moves at the speed with which the boys can gather up and unroll the carpets

All the way along young people sing, drum, and dance. Watch the clip below for a taste of it.

We come round the corner to join an even bigger procession. They come from every direction to join at the center of town and process to the baptismal pools.
Goats are conspicuously present along the route (food for tomorrow’s feast!) Everything is very unvarnished and immediate here.

We end the day at the place where all the processions will eventually gather, the pools of King Fasilides. There thousands of pilgrims will keep vigil through the night and tens of thousands will celebrate the blessing of the water and renewal of baptism at dawn.

The tents behind the pilgrims are for the Tabots, the replicas of the Ark of the Covenant that reside in the Holy of Holies of every church. They are the center of each procession and will keep vigil through the night.
Every space is occupied as the processions pass by — even trees, Zaccheus-like.
White is the festive color, and most people wear a lot of it!
At the baptismal pools.
These are the “bleachers” that will hold hundreds of visitors tomorrow. They graciously dedicate the best seats to us, their out of town guests, provided we join them early!

DAY 3: Epiphany, Part 2

Our group of pilgrims wakes at 3am to join the overnight vigil at the baptism pool, and to take our places for the sunrise liturgy.

Why we are so early will become apparent as the crowd grows!
A deacon tries to keep calm and order as the pilgrims/tourists jockey for a space; llike blackbirds on a wire, this precariously improvised grandstand holds us all.
Keeping good company through the hours.

The crowd swells to many thousands in the pre-dawn, jostling and settling into a long ritual in a liminal space. We are running on low reserves, but that only opens our spiritual eyes wider!

When more priests begin to gather we sense the energy starting to build
Light steals over the grounds; each minute of the four hours of waiting has its own unique texture.
The crowd swells, and there are tens of thousands more beyond the walls.
Finally, the liturgy reaches the point where the archbishop steps down to bless the water
By this point hundreds of young men have climbed the walls, stripped down, just waiting...

The chants slowly gather strength and speed until they crescendo in the blessing of the water. Then all heaven breaks loose: young men by the hundreds fling themselves over the stone wall into the enclosure and jump into the pool. Priests with water hoses spray down the people, who clamor to get soaked. We are drenched with water and the spirit by the time we find our way out of the ecstatic melee.

A priest hoses down our section of the bleachers
Then hands the hose off to others to complete the work. Water everywhere!
We are all soaked (and beaming) by the time we make our way out of this ecstatic and happy chaos!

The rest of the day we spend on a dusty overland journey toward Lake Tana (the source of the Nile) through an expansive landscape dotted by tiny villages. Along the way the road is clogged by a half-dozen rural Timkat processions, equally festive and richly textured. Again, the greatest beauty is in the faces.

Traveling overland shows us how rural Ethiopia lives — subsistence farming well beyond the electrical grid — a glimpse into another time. What is notable everywhere is the strong family ties and the ready smile.
The street processions that keep blocking our path slow us down but gladden our journey!
Nothing better on a hot, dusty road than sugarcane!

Day 4: Island Monasteries

Lake Tana is the source of the Blue Nile, and the remote island monasteries which date back to the beginning of Christian monasticism in the 6th century. Monasteries here and elsewhere in Ethiopia are the richest repository of Ethiopia’s religious traditions and the core of their spiritual life They inform everything we have seen so far.

We travel by boat out to Ura Kidanemihret, one of the larger monasteries of a cluster located on the islands and peninsulas. The place feels timeless and a world apart, and indeed has preserved Ethiopia’s treasures in times of conflict.

Stone bells stand at the entrance to the monastery
Entering the enclosure
Most monasteries are built in great concentric circles: the inner Holy of Holies, the next court is for the people, praying with the icons and the saints, and the outer ring is for the choir, singing with the angels — heaven every step of the way.
Shoes off, head covered. It’s an assumed norm by now.

Here we learn the lore of Ethiopia’s colorful saints and legends, and we spend time in silent reflection. Where the past two days of Epiphany celebrations in Gonder were crowded and ecstatic, today is a wonderfully spacious counterpoint that gives us time to reflect, recover, and prepare for the next stage of the pilgrimage.

Like stained glass windows in medieval Europe, church walls are the story-telling foundation for a rural society that is still largely non literate.
Time and space to reflect
In the choir court. The sound of these drums — just wow!

We also take some time in this quiet place to remember the life of one of our own Trinity Church saints, Denise, who passed into the larger life of God this past week, and is being buried from Trinity today.

Ostrich eggs spiked to the monastery roof cross — Resurrection!
My favorite icon: just the weight of a shadow from a finger of the Virgin Mary is enough to rebalance the scales of the (mis)deeds of a lifetime. Infinite mercy for all. Sing with the angels, Denise!
Many monastery treasuries (the best we saw don’t allow photos) have loads of rare manuscripts and artifacts, some over a thousand years old. Some complete versions of lost texts have been found, and there is still more to discover.

Day 5: The New Jerusalem, Pt. 1

We next jump a flight over the impassable mountains and step further back in time to another dynasty’s 12th-century capitol, Lalibela.

Lonely Planet calculates that it takes 10 full days of public bus transportation just to travel the distance of this circuit. We have it so easy!
Spirits are high as our physical batteries recharge after Timkat/Epiphany.

Now a rustic mountain town, Lalibela surrounds an ancient architectural wonder: 11 monolithic rock-hewn churches attributed to King Lalibela, who built them as a symbolic Jerusalem.

Throughout the afternoon we weave our way through the first group of churches, connected by caves and stairs and passageways. The whole experience has a slight Indiana Jones feel. Sculpted out of living stone, the buildings are indeed overwhelming in scale and devotion. They are named for many of the stations of pilgrimage in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, so there is a Bethlehem, and Golgotha, surrounded by landmarks like Mt Tabor, River Jordan, Mt. Sinai, etc.

The pilgrims enter one of the churches
Stairs and passageways connect each of the churches
The decoration and detail is striking. Each church is unique in style and arrangement
Saints peer from every corner!
At the tomb of King Lalibela himself
Roz tackles the stairs with a pilgrim’s determination!
A company of saints!

All this, carved from a single stone!

End of day: arriving at the iconic St Giyorgis church, which we will explore tomorrow.


With a group this size, a significant chunk of time is spent every day at meals. As the group grows closer, these become noticeably sacramental, a sustaining part of the journey itself.

Ethiopia’s most classic dish: injera (a fermented pancake-like bread) with an array of vegetable, legume, and minced meat sauces. It goes quickly when it’s good!
Honey wine, tere sega (raw beef), and the ubiquitous coffee, which is always served ceremonially with incense, no matter how humble the home or restaurant.
When the power goes out, the candles and smartphones come on, and the feasting continues!

Day 6: The New Jerusalem, Pt. 2

Today we begin with a long drive through winding roads deep into the countryside to visit the cave church of Yemrehanna Kristos. A steep hike up through a juniper forest along with other pilgrims brings us to a huge natural cave in the rock face where a 10th-century church was built using the Aksumite style (copied in stone in the Lalibela churches).

We are fortunate to visit in the lull after Epiphany, since all the sites we visit are thronged by pilgrims during the frequent saints days and festivals.
Like many monasteries and churches, this is a place of intense devotion, and pilgrims consider it an auspicious place to leave this life — there are over 10,000 mummies at the back of the cave!
Monks sleep in and at the side of the church.
A millennium of devotion is written into the stone and wood
Roof detail
Kissing the cross is standard practice in every church. This one is 500 years old.

In the afternoon we return to Lalibela to visit the second group of interconnected churches. Each church has its own uniqueness, and its own athletic challenges to navigate, including “Hell-to-Heaven”, a five-minute passage of total darkness.

Transiting between churches.
Entering “Hell”
Coming up into “Heaven”
Summerlee has been listening to the cadence of the drumming as we’ve traveled, and interprets what she has heard
So many small moments with epiphanies of beauty!

Toward sunset, today being Sunday, we gather for a informal outdoor Eucharist at the most iconic of the churches, St. George’s. We are alone in this spectacularly alive place and moment, a very “thin” place, and our Eucharist feels both transcendent and intimate — until it doesn’t.

A number of teenage boys notice our gathering and become incensed at our “desecration” of the place with unauthorized prayer. We are less than gently hounded off the site as we are sharing communion.

It’s a jarring experience in the moment, and I think it will become an important memory that will change shape and grow in the years to come, and it certainly was unforgettable! The New Jerusalem is still an aspiration, and ours to make if we choose it.

And then an exceedingly sweet coda to the Eucharist: our guide, Lule, invites us to his home for dinner. It is simple and abundant and gracious.

Meals at home are surrounded morning, noon, and night, by the ritual of preparing coffee. First it is washed, as we arrive
Freshly slaughtered lamb is being roasted on a fire.
Everyone helps!
As the coffee is roasted it’s smoke is blown over guests in blessing.
Honey is pulled from Lule’s hives and placed on our fingers.
Then the meal is ladled out on injera
And finally the coffee is poured and served with roasted barley
Toward the end of the evening Lule’s father, who is a priest, showed up with his prayer book and icons, to bless us. Amen!
The kids take it one step further and show us the ubiquitous shoulder-shake dance moves that very child learns from her first steps.
An evening of memorable hospitality and friendship. We are blessed indeed!

Day 7: The Ark of the Covenant

Our third jump by plane takes us back another thousand years and to yet another dynasty, to the great Aksumite empire that covered a million square miles of Africa and Arabia. It’s hard to reconstruct the greatness of this empire, but some of the artifacts tell parts of the story on a grand scale. The single-stone stelae are larger and more intricate than those of Egypt, and the technique used to release them from the surrounding rock still cannot be replicated today. By tradition, this is also the resting place for the Ark of the Covenant. (The story of how it got here is fascinating.)

In the stellae field, funeral monuments to the kings
The scale of these things is huge!
Underneath the stelae are the raided tombs — it has a touch of Indiana Jones to it!

The resting place of the Ark of the Covenant is remembered by the church to be here in Aksum. It’s shrine building is not ancient, I fact it’s leaking badly enough to build a replacement next door, and it’s presence almost seems overlooked, given the overall legendary importance it assumes in religious life.

This is consistent with religious practice throughout the country though: the power of the sacred is distributed rather than reserved. Every Ethiopian knows the Ark is real, but that doesn’t create a bunkered or exalted shrine, but rather shows up in the love for each church’s Tabot replica, and for the vernacular devotion that flows so freely on the street. It is difficult to describe, but easy to see in motion.

An example of the power and accessibility of the sacred. This book in the church next to the shrine is 400 years old, and guarded with the reverence of a relic, yet used regularly — we were invited to turn its pages. No glass or white gloves here!
A quick look into the monastery next to the shrine revealed treasures of its own, especially some rare icons.
The Ethiopian version of Our Lady of Kazan, I’m told.
Monks on cell phones; it seems to be a thing,

As with most important treasuries, there is one next door to the shrine, which we were allowed to enter but not photograph. Like Lalibela’s, this treasury is stunning — more like a warehouse than a museum, with piles of crowns, crosses, texts and other artifacts. The uncatalogued expanse of it is a little dizzying.

Our day ends on the outskirts of town, passing by ancient springs that have supplied the city with drinking and bathing water for millennia (so of course they are considered the baths of Sheba) and ending at the Aksumite Dundur palace (with foundations that go back further — to Sheba?)

The baths of Sheba. Springs mark ancient centers of human habitation. In a place like Ethiopia that means a very long time!
Inside a little shed stands a recently unearthed inscription stone, the “Rosetta Stone” of Ethiopia, proclaiming in Sabean, Greek, and Ge’ez the kings deeds right before his conversion to Christianity in 340.
Dungur Palace. Ethiopians know this as Sheba’s Palace, though there is no archeological consensus on that. In the far right distance is the quarry for the Aksum stela obelisks.

Like Gonder and Lalibela, Aksum adds up layer upon layer of living history, legend, and devotion. The result is like a halo, moving with and around our experience. It’s not an airbrushed ‘precious moment’, but rather vivid and immediate, like Ethiopian icons. That luminosity is most alive in the personal encounters with the extraordinarily kind and open people we have met along the way.

Day 8: Dawn of Time

Our last internal flight of the trip returns us to yet another capitol, Addis Adaba, a little more chaotic than usual, as the African Union (Africa’s UN) has brought together leaders and diplomatic teams from all across Africa. It’s a sign of Ethiopia’s long and continuing role in African identity.

Roz and Wendy heading toward our last flight — we take these almost-daily flights in stride now that we’re on the homestretch!

Addis allows us to set our journey in an even larger context, that of all human history. The Ethnographic museum, which holds the 3-million-year-old bones of “Lucy” also holds 8 million years of earlier ancestral history that is staggering to behold.

George photo-bombs our selfie with Lucy

Tools that precede the Stone Age are replicated on display — and are still in use today in the countryside through which we have traveled. Times collide in this place where monks have cell phones and farmers can be seen using wooden-blade ploughs.

Spear points turned into ploughshares. Makes more resonant sense of the “New Jerusalem” prophecies.
Behive technology - unchanged from our early history till now
And a touch of the surreal: the Ethnography Museum is housed in the former palace of Emperor Sellasie, and the king’s bedroom remains preserved as it was. The arc of history continues!

We share one last traditional meal together before we make the long trip home. We are different people — individually and together — than when we arrived. How that translates to our continuing journey we have yet to discover, but there is an abundance of new material to work with, and a surfeit of love and joy.

Sian with Wondiye, our guide, who was an angel to us, and has become a lasting friend.
Final goodbyes as the last of the group heads our different directions

Day 9: The Return Journey

Saying goodbye after this pilgrimage is complicated. It’s been an intense journey together. A diverse group of individuals has become a deeply caring and close company of friends. We have found inspiration in the infectious togetherness of the people around us, and have stretched way beyond our comfort zones in so many ways, and have found out just how large and generous we can be.

We have been drinking from a firehose, physically and spiritually, and the full absorption in that experience makes our sudden realization that this company of friendship is now breaking up a little disorienting. What are we saying goodbye to? What travels with us on the onward journey?

That’s a question we will be answering with our next steps in the coming days. Pilgrimage is a round-trip venture, and we are bringing something back, for ourselves, and more importantly for others. How does what we have experienced benefit the places we call home?

For me, the goal of any pilgrimage is to discover that every step of daily life is a spiritual journey. These grand adventures that test our limits and take us to the ends of the earth are meant to be disruptive enough to get our attention. As we are thrown off-center spiritually and physically we are opened to discoveries we might not have noticed in the familiarity of home. The Journey’s goal is to help us to notice the same truths and lessons and gifts that are in front of us every day when we get out of bed.

The poet Antonio Machado pointedly says, “Pilgrim, there are no paths. Paths are made by walking.” Our life’s destiny, while never fully revealed, is nonetheless carried forward in our very next step.

Walk on, Pilgrims!

A couple of days of rest after the pilgrimage on Lake Ziway in the Rift Valley. The call to prayer from the monastery on the island in front of me, the call to life from millions of the dozens of species of waterbirds around me — a great place to put together this reflection on the trip. See you all back home!

Created By
Daniel Simons

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