Religion in Ethiopia

Timkat celebration in Gondar, Ethiopia
People clad in white are waiting for daybreak at Timkat celebration in Gondar, Ethiopia

Ethiopia has Christianity as its dominant religion but Islam is the faith of over one-third of the total population. A few others adhere to Judaism as their religion, which was the prevailing religion centuries back. Ethiopians embraced Christianity in the 4th century, long before Europeans, in fact. The biggest and grandest festival celebrated in Ethiopia is known as the “Timkat” or the “Feast of the Epiphany” which is observed every 19th of January.

Some Christian holidays that are regularly commemorated in Ethiopia are Christmas, Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Meskel, or the search for the True Cross. Most of these Christian celebrations are also made state holidays as a sign of reverence to people’s religious convictions. Some notable Muslim holidays are Ramadan, Arafa or Id Al Adha, and Muhammad’s birthday, which falls on 14th of June. Also, on these days devotees are expected to spend their time at their place of worship. Families have three days of mourning for the departed family member. The Christian faithful departed are buried in church grounds while Muslims are buried in the grounds of a mosque.

All over Ethiopia beautiful churches can be found, even in the smaller villages the church and religion plays an important role in Ethiopian society. The priests are often seen walking in the streets with their long robes and characteristic walking sticks.

One should always be careful in bringing alcoholic beverages to social gatherings since a large number of Ethiopians belong to the Muslim groups who deeply believe that social drinking is unacceptable. The feast always ends with rituals like hand washing and coffee drinking. In addition, a person needs to take off his/her shoes before entering an Ethiopian home.

Timkat (or Timket) is an Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and Eritrea Orthodox Tewahedo Church celebration of Epiphany. It is celebrated on January 19th (or 20th in a leap year), corresponding to the 11th day of Terr in the Ge’ez calendar. During the ceremonies of Timkat, the Tabot, a model of the Ark of the Covenant, which is present on every Ethiopian altar, is wrapped in rich cloth and borne in procession on the head of the priest.

Timkat celebration in Gondar, Ethiopia
People gathering for the Timkat celebration in Gondar, Ethiopia
Timkat celebration in Gondar, Ethiopia
A young man at Timkat celebration in Gondar, Ethiopia

The Tabot, which is otherwise rarely seen by the laity, represents the manifestation of Jesus as the Messiah when he came to the Jordan for baptism. Timket is celebrated every January throughout the country. But many consider Gondar to host the best experience: Its 17th-century pool, surrounding one of the city’s many historical palaces, holds just the right amount of drama and history. In Gondar, the three-day affair starts with smaller ceremonies at eight different churches. Then, eight colorful parades of choirs and priests – accompanied by huge crowds – begin blending like a river’s tributaries until they meet at the piazza. Their final destination is Fasiladas’ Bath, about 2 kilometers away.

Timkat celebration in Gondar, Ethiopia
An old man holding a cross at Timkat celebration in Gondar, Ethiopia

Traditional beliefs

Although the majority of Africans today are adherents of Christianity or Islam, African people often combine the practice of their traditional belief with the practice of Abrahamic religions. In the far south of the country, in- and around Omo valley the Hamers, Mursi, Dassanach and other tribes takes nature as their object of worshipping and they have unique cultural traditions, most strikingly displaced in their style and appearances.

Sizable percentages of both Christians and Muslims – a quarter or more in many countries – say they believe in the protective power of juju (charms or amulets). Many people also say they consult traditional religious healers when someone in their household is sick, and sizable minorities in several countries keep sacred objects such as animal skins and skulls in their homes and participate in ceremonies to honor their ancestors.

Among many of the tribes in Omo Valley, the traditional beliefs are still very strong. For example the Hamer people, who conducts bull jumping ceremony where a man – as the name suggests, will have to jump from the back of a bull to the next bull in order to approve their manhood. The ceremony has several stages and part it is the women of the tribe willingly being whipped quite severely – in order to show their love, devotion and submissiveness to their man.

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In order to prepare themselves for the whipping Hamer women cheer, sing and dance and probably gets into almost trance like state of mind. Photo © Mikkel Grabowski
In order to prepare themselves for the whipping Hamer women cheer, sing and dance and probably gets into almost trance like state of mind. Photo © Mikkel Grabowski
Decorated man at bull jumping ceremony
A traditionally painted man at the bull jumping ceremony by the Hamer tribe in Omo valley. Photo © Mikkel Grabowski 2012