The Meskel festival is the first big festival of the Ethiopian religious year and marks the finding of the cross that Jesus was crucified on, according to Orthodox Christian tradition.
The festival traces its roots back over 1,600 years and has been celebrated every other year since then. It is held annually on Meskerem 17th in the Ethiopian calendar (September 27th Gregorian calendar), at the Meskel Square, named in honour of the festival, located in the capital city, Addis Ababa.
The Meskel festival celebration begins on the eve of the Meskel Holiday with the burning of a large bonfire called Demera. The burning of the Demera is based on the belief that Queen Eleni, as she is known, had a revelation in a dream. She was told that she should make a bonfire and that the smoke would show her where the True Cross was buried. So she ordered the people of Jerusalem to bring wood and make a huge pile. After adding frankincense to it the bonfire was lit and the smoke rose high up to the sky and returned to the ground, exactly to the spot where the Cross had been buried.
According to local traditions, this Demera-procession takes place in the early evening the day before Meskel or on the day itself. The firewood is decorated prior to it been burnt and the Charcoal from the remains of the fire is afterwards collected and used by the faithful to mark their foreheads with the shape of a cross.
Religious and civil leaders typically preside over the celebration, and public figures give speeches and reference biblical themes and stories.
This colourful festival is not only celebrated as a public holiday in Ethiopia, but has been inscribed as UNESCO’s world heritage festival as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Many visitors and tourists from around the world travel to Ethiopia yearly to experience the religious festival every year.
All photos by Amensisa Negera, Getty Images and AFP.