The 11 churches of Lalibela are not only a wonder of art and architecture, but also one of the best places to attend an Orthodox celebration: the large number of churches are busy every week with at least some special mass, but on occasion of the yearly celebrations of the major saints the city becomes a main destination for pilgrims from throughout central Ethiopia.
The Timket celebration in Lalibela is doubtlessly the most well-known festival of the Ethiopian Orthodox church. It commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ on the river Jordan, so water has a central role in the ceremony: processions carrying the “Tabot” from different churches convey to the holy water pool in the afternoon, priests and believers spend the night there praying and chanting, and then in the morning the main priest blesses the water making it holy. Colourful processions are held on the way back to the church, and don’t miss the next day of Mikael, where a lot of believers come from the nearby villages.
After 40 days of fasting abstaining from all animal products, at the beginning of January all Ethiopian Orthodox believers celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. All over Ethiopia only a special mass is celebrated and then lent is broken together with the family with a big feast, but in Lalibela it is possible to witness an amazing pilgrimage from remote places to an evocative celebration in the night, culminating at midnight with a magical moment in which all the worshippers gathered around Saint Mary Church light a candle together at the same time.
The large number of churches concentrated in Lalibela offers several possibilities throughout the year. Saint George in late January, Lideta Mariam in May, Mikael in June are just some of the various celebrations off the beaten trail. It’s just a matter of knowing the ins and outs of the Ethiopian Calendar to find the best match to your route.
The Ethiopian Orthodox church follows the calendar of the Coptic Church, called Julian calendar. The account of years differs from the European one (Gregorian) by 7 years. The year starts on the western 11th of September, so 11/9/2019 is 1/1/2012 in the Ethiopian Calendar.
Also the months are completely different, 12 months of 30 days, and one of 5 or 6 days.
Throughout the year there are more than 200 fasting days, all the days of the month are assigned to a saint, and during the year there is at least one main celebration for each one. To fully understand all the details is a challenge, let us just welcome you in Ethiopia being 7 years younger!