The Bath of Fasiledes has now been restored with the help of funding from the Government of Norway. When my son, John, and I visited Gondar, Ethiopia in 2006 the work was still in progress with stone masons rebuilding walls.
This fascinating structure was created during the reign of Emperor Fasiledes (1632-1667). It is a stone walled compound within which there is a giant rectangular pool. Situated within the pool is a three story castle. The Bath was only a short walk from my house. In fact, it was across the road from the third compound of our school where all the school gardens were located. Between my house and the Bath was the sports field which contained the charming monument to Zobel, Fasiledes’ favorite horse. The celebration of Timket is held on January 19 or January 20 if it is leap year.
Timket is one of the two major public celebrations of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The other is Meskel which is held in September to commemorate the finding of the true cross. Timket commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. The Bath was filled in early January by routing water from the nearby river through an ancient irrigation ditch. Because the hospital sanitarians told us they had chemically treated the water in the Bath, John Stockton and I took an early swim in the Bath on January 4, 1963. In my diary I noted that it was “as cold as swimming in Lake Superior in August.”
On January 19, 1963 I wrote:
At 7:30 I went to the Bath of Fasiledes to watch Timket. The compound was crowded with priests, officials, soldiers and people. The priests paraded out of the castle where the religious relics were stored. They stood along one edge of the pool and chanted, sang, rang bells, beat drums and swayed in time to the rhythm of their hand held sistrums (a small metal object on the end of a handle which contains metal disks which slide back and forth as the hand is moved). The Bishop then took his cross over to the Governor who kissed it and several candles were lighted at the water’s edge and the Bishop bent down to bless the water. Then all the officials came over to where the Bishop was standing and the Bishop proceeded to literally throw a cup of water on them. At that point the crowd went wild and dove for the water. Some jumped in while most were content to splash and throw water on others.
Some soldiers stripped off their uniforms and jumped in. One fellow nearly drowned and had to be pulled to the edge of the pool. As a second ceremony the priests lined up at a tent outside the compound for more chanting and rhythmic dancing. Some men solicited funds from the audience for a new church. After about half an hour a religious procession formed with the cross bearers, arc carriers, crown wearers, Bishop, priests and government officials. They paraded about a mile up the mountain to the central square where there was more singing and dancing.
The next day I noted that someone had drowned in the pool and five boys were killed during the week when an Italian shell exploded while they were knocking it against some rocks.
I also wrote on January 20, 1963:
I was honored to be invited to a feast at the home of the Provincial Bishop. Peggy and John Davis, John, Dallas and I were included along with Aba Gebre Meskel , Ato Kettema and several others. Hosting were the Provincial Bishop (Metropolitan Peter) and the Gondar Bishop. Bishop Peter is a charming person who speaks English quite well. The table was lined with bottles of teg, talla, beer, wine and charged water. As a first course we had a lasagna. That was followed with a salad of lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes and eggs. As the first wat (stew) we were served lamb stomach and liver. Then came a chicken wat followed by beef wat. Allecha was the last wat. It is very mild being made of vegetables, spices and mashed ingera. One of the seasonal treats at Timket is shimbera (chickpeas). People walk around carrying stems laiden with peas which they munch on. One of the popular songs of the country people is about a country boy eating shimbera.
In my diary I wrote:
Just as last year many church delegations paraded past our house on the way to the Bath. There they sang and danced and made ready for the ceremony. Most of them ignored the priests and sat and stood around the pool watching the swimmers. (In my first posting, “Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: Zewale Zegeye” I paid tribute to my student and friend Zewale Zegeye who was assassinated in the 1970’s). Patrolling the edge of the pool was Zewale Zegeye who, out of a sense of duty, was prepared to rescue anyone who entered the water and did not know how to swim. On several occasions someone would go under and spectators would react with laughter until the person was rescued.
Usually found on the piazza was a beggar who could not walk and yet was always friendly. He navigated on his back by holding two wooden blocks in his hands and moving on all fours like a spider. It must have taken him hours to reach the Bath from the piazza which was a mile away up the mountain. There he was on the edge of the pool. He took off all his clothes, tied them around his neck and tumbled into the pool. Once in the water he was the equal of any man. I cannot do justice in describing the joyful expression on his face as he was blessed on this one day of the year, Timket. He swam across the pool and two policemen lifted him out of the water. He put his clothes back on and crawled off.
In 1964, a leap year, the ceremony was held on the 20th.