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Ethiopia’s Epiphany Takes a Political Turn

Outside a centuries-old stone church in the northern Ethiopian city of Gondar, a drama troupe performed skits hailing the military defeat of the former leaders of the country’s Tigray region. As rifle-toting actors danced around chanting actresses, an audience cheered when the troupe denounced the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) as a band of “traitors”. The performance was part of festivities marking the Orthodox Christian holiday of Epiphany, known as Timkat in Ethiopia, which commemorates Jesus’s baptism in the River Jordan. In a typical year, Timkat in Gondar is a sunny, light-hearted affair, capped by a ceremony at 17th-century stone baths — built during the time of Emperor Fasilides — in which thousands of worshippers and tourists dive into holy water. The event is a main driver of tourism in Gondar, the former seat of Ethiopia’s royal empire, and in 2019 it earned a spot on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This year, however, is hardly typical for Ethiopia: The country is grappling with the conflict in Tigray as well as persistent ethnic violence in other regions and, most recently, simmering tensions along the border with Sudan. The crises have inspired some officials and ordinary Ethiopians to turn the event into a celebration of military might, using public statements and performances to project strength and issue warnings to would-be enemies.