Ethiopia’s New Millennium
A.S.H. Smyth witnesses the first Meskel Festival of Ethiopia’s Third Millennium, in the ancient capital of Gonder.
Ethiopia’s New Year falls at this time thanks to their unique thirteen-month calendar, a hangover from a shared Egyptian-Coptic legacy (in which the New Year was traditionally connected to the Nile flood). The Ethiopians have also been seven years adrift from the rest of the world since about AD 500, when the Roman Church recalculated the birth of Christ, something that was ignored by the Coptic church in Africa. One minor result is that visitors can enjoy the fleeting pleasure – as the joke goes in Addis Ababa – of being able to feel seven years younger.
While the Ethiopian New Year festivities involve nothing more exotic than beer, municipal fireworks and derivative reggae, for a real Ethiopian festival Meskel – two-and-a-half weeks after the New Year – is top of the list. And there are few more atmospheric places to see it than the ancient capital of Gonder, often referred to as ‘Africa’s Camelot’.
Celebrated across the country for 1,600 years on September 27th (or Meskerem 17th, in the Ethiopian/Julian calendar) Meskel – the finding of ‘the true cross’ – is one of the most important festivals in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church year. While Prime Minister Meles Zenawi rhetorically dedicated an entire year to the ongoing millennium festivities, some ultra-Orthodox Ethiopians literally set aside a whole month to celebrate Meskel.