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Meskel: Ethiopia celebrates the Finding of the True Cross

Hello everyone! As promised last Friday, today I am going to talk to you a little about my memories of Meskel in Ethiopia.

Yesterday, Ethiopians celebrated the Finding of the True Cross or Meskel, as it is called in Amharic. A huge festivity for the country that hosts a piece of the True Cross.

What I remember about Meskel is that it always put me in a great mood. For three reasons. It usually coincides with the last day of rain. It is one of the most vibrant folkloristic celebrations held in the country. Last but not least, it represents a victory of a mission wanted by a woman, the roman Empress Helena Augusta.

Image taken from, taken by Fredrick Nzwilly.

I recall the praises to this great woman, during the church ceremonies. Praised as mother of the first roman Emperor to convert to Christianism. More importantly, she was praised for her role in the finding of the Meskel, the True Cross.

“She had a dream”

It was indeed in a dream, a divine revelation, that Empress Helena was told to search for the True Cross and that a bonfire would give her the clue as to the exact whereabouts Christ was crucified in.

This lady from humble beginnings, who made it from being a stable maid with no noble lineage to being the wife of an Emperor, would then follow her dream and begin her big quest to find the Cross. Empress Helena decided to follow her dream and ordered all citizens of Jerusalem to bring wood and build a big bonfire.

Once the bonfire that was lit, Empress Helena added some frankincense to it and prayed asking God to guide her towards the Cross. According to the legend, the smoke of the bonfire then rose high up and fell towards the direction where the cross was hidden. The Empress then ordered a dig in that area where three crosses was found. Which one was the True Cross?

Image taken from

Empress Helena was dead bent to ensure she chose the right one. Therefore, she had a woman close to her death be brought to the site. The woman touched the first and the second cross and nothing happened. When she touched the third, she suddenly recovered. That is how Empress Helena decided that was the True Cross Jesus Christ was crucified on.

It is to commemorate this that, on the Eve of Meskel, Ethiopians always light the Demera, a big bonfire on all the main squares in the country.

Demera: bonfire and church choires

I recall the crowd, flowing from all angles of the city to the main square, called indeed Meskel square. Men wearing their white ensemble of traditional attires, women wearing the traditional attires or habesha libs, youngsters all flowing to the main square carrying the green, yellow and red flag. The most amazing part though, were the church choir groups, choirs from different churches would all come wearing their own ensemble of colourful church clothes. Such a treat for the eye.

It was a treat for the ears too. The rhythmic bong of the huge kebero drums, the delicate but heart lifting sound of the round tsilantsil timbrels, the sound of the meqwamya sticks beating the floor always found their way into my chore. Then the calm, slow and yet melodic singing of the choir would do it, you would just feel your heart and soul be lifted to a higher realm.

When all were gathered, the Patriarch would light the bonfire and make a speech which included a blessing for the new Ethiopian Year. The ceremony, adorned by people alternating to see the fire, choirs singing, people chanting, would continue under the bonfire would eventually dim. That is when we would all head home and get ready for the finding for the real festive day, Meskel, the day the Cross was dug out of where it was hidden.

Meskel is celebrated by eating festive food, going to visit neighbours and families.

Meskel is also celebrated as the day of the last rainfall of the season. Ethiopians are known to say infact that Meskel rain is the last for the season. It usually is.

Is the True Cross in Ethiopia?

Image taken from

A piece of the True Cross is believed to be in Ethiopia. That is probably the main reason for which this festivity has been given so much more relevance by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church than by other Christian religions such as Catholicism and Protestantism.

The interesting thing is that the Geshen mount, which hosts the peace of the True Cross, is itself in the form of a cross. The Geshen mount infact hosts the Geshen Mariam church where the relic is found. Legend has it, the powerful light of the holy cross made people feel naked, that is why it was decided to bury it at the Gishen Mariam Monastery.

Next Friday, it will be about another mount, to be more specific, a chain of mountains that I will talk to you about. Bale mountains is indeed a spectacular place that hosts a few endemic animals to Ethiopia.

Allow me to leave you with this beautiful piece of music, Ethiopia, by Gigi, a singer whose music is rooted in the lithurgical songs of the Ethiopian Orthodox church.


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