is an ancient seasonal rite, which has become an integral part of the Ethiopian
Christian Calendar. This national holiday has been celebrated throughout
Ethiopia for centuries and is one of the most important annual festivals. The 26th
September is the eve of Maskal, a feast commemorating the Finding of the True
the middle of the afternoon the celebrations start. Many are seen wearing their
brilliant white Ethiopian costumes. The occasion takes place at the Maskal
square in Addis Ababa, near the church of Saint Estifanos. A colour procession
of priests, deacons and choir boys and girls of Sunday schools wearing
embroidered robes walk around a huge pyre, bearing ceremonial crosses and wooden
torches decorated with olive leaves. As the sun begins to set, the torch-bearers
move forward in unison to set alight the slender pyramid-shaped structure,
topped with a cross made from the yellow flowers known as Maskal daisies which
are placed on the tallest central pole.
crowd of spectators are kept at bay while visitors are allowed to enter the
inner circle in accordance with the Ethiopians age-old tradition of hostility.
The casually dressed tourists form an incongruous contrast as they brandish
their cameras, while around them the procession of proud clergy clad in dazzling
ceremonial robes chant as they perform this ancient rite.
origins of the celebration are expressed in the Ethiopian manuscript of
parchment. It is said to date back to the discovery of the Byzantine Queen of
Helena of the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. According to the
manuscript, in the 20th year of the reign of her son Constantine, she
set off for Jerusalem in search of the ‘life giving cross,’ which she
eventually found after many trials and tribulations. She is said to have forced
the Jews to reveal the whereabouts of this ‘Honourable Cross’, which
allegedly lay under the hill of Golgotha, formed from sweepings, ashes and offal
piled on the grave of Jesus Christ.
is said to have found the Cross by lighting incense and following the smoke as
it descended to earth. She caused bonfires to be lit on the hills of Palestine
which could be seen across the sea by the people of Constantinople.
how did the rediscovered cross come to Ethiopia? According to Tefut, a massive
volume dating from the 15th Century which records the detailed story
of the acquisition of a fragment of the True Cross by Ethiopia. The Christian
Kings of Ethiopia were often called upon in the early Middle Ages to protect
Egyptian Copts against the Egyptian Muslims. In return for this delivery from
Muslim persecution, fabulous gifts of precious gold were offered to Ethiopian
Emperor Dawit. He rejected these offerings and asked instead for four pieces of
the True Cross, which were under the custody of the patriarch of Alexandria. The
request was granted and the pieces brought to Ethiopia. They were guarded on the
journey by torchbearers and then deposited in a church at Gishen, in northern
Wollo dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Rejoicing followed throughout the whole
country and the Emperor ordered that the capes of the priests be embroidered
with flowers. Since that day, Ethiopian Christians are believed to have
commemorated the occasion with
flaming torches and huge bonfires.
Dawit’s fourth son, Zara Yacob, succeeded him as Emperor and, when he was a
very old man, dreamt that God ordered him to ‘place the cross upon a cross.’
Zara Yacob spent two years in abstinence, searching in seclusion, and at last
discovered a mountain shaped like a cross. There he built the beautiful church
of Egziabher Ab, and a fragment of the True Cross was kept within a gold box in
the church. The priests of Gishen still safeguard this treasure along with the
Tefut which is handwritten in Ge’ez on beautiful parchment.
Maskal is a religious and joyful annual social occasion that Christians
throughout the country look forward to each year. Both women and men wear their
national clothes, while youths boast and compete in fights with sticks. There is
also jesting as well as flirting and courting sanctioned by the festival. These
days, people return from the capital parade to their houses and bring the
torches called Chibbo, to neighbourhood bonfire gatherings. The torchbearers
chant as they circle the pyre, the Damera, (literally stack or pile of wooden
torches), which are covered with cloth until a priest blesses it. The
torchbearers then hurl their flames into the midst of the Dameras, while the
gathering watches the blaze light up the night sky.
the following day people go to the bonfire and make the sign of the cross on
their foreheads with the ash.