Celebrating Meskel in Bahir Dar

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Meskel is one of my favourite holidays in Ethiopia. I loved my time celebrating it last year in Addis Ababa and was very glad to have the opportunity to attend the festivities in Bahir Dar. Throughout Ethiopia (and Eritrea I am told), Meskel is celebrated by burning bunches of branches which signify the Find of the True Cross by Queen Helena in the fourth century. According to the popular story, Queen Helena had a dream that if she lit a bonfire, the smoke would reveal where the True Cross is buried. The smoke burnt high in the sky and then dropped to the ground to reveal the location of where the Cross was buried.

D7A_5035u D7A_5061uUnlike in Addis Ababa, where everyone sits and observes the parades and the ceremony unfolding, in Bahir Dar, after the demera was lit, the crowd went wild and groups of Sunday school youth groups burst into drumming and songs. I tried to mix into the crowd and was able to get a few great portraits of people. Everyone was in such a great mood and it was a lovely time.

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At one point while I was photographing, my gardener came along and posed for me in front of the dying flames of the demera.

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A roman chariot passed around the flame signifying something that I still haven’t quite figured out.

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At this point, things got a little bit rougher as the police tried to contain the crowds that wanted to go get some ash. The ash is used to mark a cross on the forehead of the believers and is believed to be a sign of being a true christian. I stayed on the front lines as people rushed forward and got little handfuls of the ash in front of the dying flames and then ran back to share some with their family and friends. Before this happened though, everyone was very respectful of letting one gorgeously dressed lady in a wheelchair get her forehead ash and ext the scene.

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Meskel has been recognized by UNESCO as a cultural heritage ceremony for the first time this year. As a festival that has been on-going for a couple hundred years, it was very fitting. All around Ethiopia, families spent the day together eating, burning a bonfire and spending time together. In many ways, it reflects how festivals all over the world are- good fun, good food and great energy. I was very pleased to be able to experience it all in Bahir Dar, the city where I live, instead of Addis Ababa this year. Somehow, it made me feel closer to the culture and the pulse of the city.

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We walked back through some alleys, with some new friends in tow and it made me realize that although it has been more than a year since I moved here, I still don’t feel like I have explored the city very much. Everywhere people were piling demeras that they would be burning with their families on the next morning. Lovers walked hand in hand. Parents took sleepy babies to bed. The supermoon shone on us all waiting to be eclipsed later that night. Melkam Meskal everyone!

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