With the heady scent of incense burning, and priests parading in their finest regalia, Meskel is Ethiopia’s most mesmerising orthodox Christian festival.
Even for non-believers, Meskel offers an excuse to experience Ethiopia in celebration, with bonfires, feasting and parties lighting up the country as they have for over 1600 years. The focus of the celebration is a bonfire topped with an image of a cross to which flowers are tied. Priests in full regalia bless the bonfire before it is lit.
Meskel coincides with celebrations of the Ethiopian calendar’s new year, the end of the long, dark rainy season and the return of sunshine and light. During this time the fields are full of flowers, especially bright yellow daisies (called ‘Adey Abeba’ in Amharic), eucalyptus trees offer their scent and the crops are starting to grow.
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In Addis Ababa’s central square, near the Church of St. George, a colourful procession of priests, deacons, choir boys and girls wearing embroidered robes walk around a huge pyre carrying ceremonial crosses and wooden torches decorated with olive leaves. As the sunset approaches the torchbearers set light to the pyramid-shaped pyre, topped with a Cross woven from Meskel daisies.
Meskel commemorates the recovery 17 centuries ago of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. According to the story, St. Helena – mother of the Roman Emperor, went to Jerusalem in search of the true cross. There, she was advised to light a fire, and the smoke pointed to the place where the cross was buried. St. Helena then gave pieces of the cross to all the Orthodox churches. Gishan Mariam – a remote mountain monastery in Ethiopia – is believed to house one of those pieces.
When: Every year on September the 27th, with the main bonfire lit on the eve of Meskel (26th).
Where: Countrywide with arguably the most festive tourist-friendly celebration held in Meskel Square, Addis Ababa. Other recommended places to witness Meskel are ancient holy cities Lalibela and Gondar (pictured above).
Contact: Ethiopian Tourist Commission.
Find out more about Ethiopia in our article 48 Hours in Addis Ababa: