Many tourists to Ethiopia try to time their visit to coincide with the colourful festivals of Meskel, Timkat or Enkutatash.

  • Now registered with UNESCO as an element of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, Meskel (27 September) commemorates the alleged 4th century discovery of the True Cross on which Jesus was crucified. The centrepiece of this uniquely Ethiopian festival is the burning of a massive conical pyre called a Damera. The largest ceremony takes place in Addis Ababa’s Meskel Square, where hundreds of thousands of people gather to watch the colourfully dressed priests chant, pray and dance. The most historically poignant site to witness Meskel is Aksum’s Cathedral of Maryam Tsion.
  • Timkat, the Ethiopian Orthodox equivalent to Epiphany, is celebrated at churches throughout the country on January 19. The best place to be during Timkat is Gondar, where the festivities culminate in a crowded and colourful afternoon re-enactment of the first baptism at the 17th century Fasil’s Pool, which is filled with water for the occasion.
  • Gena or Ledet (7 January), the Ethiopian equivalent to Christmas, is preceded by an all-night vigil following 43 days of fasting that culminate. It is a family-oriented holiday, but in some areas it is marked by traditional dancing or a hockey-like game called Yegenna Chewata, supposedly played by the local shepherds on the night Jesus was born. It is traditional to eat the national dish doro wot (chicken stew) over Gena.
  • The usual Islamic holidays are celebrated in Ethiopia, especially in and around Harar. At the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, the first day of the month of Shewal is celebrated as Eid-al-Fitr. This is followed by six-days of fasting. The 8th day of the month of Shewal is Shewal Eid – a special Harari cultural festival, consisting of 24 hours of celebrations.
  • Harar also comes alive during the Ashura ceremony, which takes place on the 10th day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar.
  • Important Islamic pilgrimage sites holding annual festivals include the Sof Omar Caves and Dire Sheikh Hussein in the lowlands east of the Bale Mountains.
  • A more secular occasion is Enkutatash, or Ethiopian New Year (11 September), which falls on the date that the Queen of Sheba supposedly arrived back in Aksum after having visited King Solomon in Jerusalem. It is celebrated vigorously throughout the country by people of all faiths.
  • Other traditional festivals include the Irecha, which is celebrated by the Oromo people at Lake Hora, in Bishoftu, on the first Sunday after Meskal (September 28), and the Fiche Chambalala, the New Year celebration of the Sidama people of Hawassa.
  • Note that in leap years, all Christian holidays fall a day later than normal on the Western Calendar.

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