Meskel (Finding the True Cross)

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The festival of Meskel commemorates the Finding of the True Cross. It is celebrated on September 26th and 27th (September 27th and 28th in a leap year). The origin goes back to the fourth century AD when Queen Helena (the mother of Constantine the Great) discovered the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. In December 2013 the Meskel celebrations are inscribed as the first Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in Ethiopia by UNESCO.


It is said a revelation came to Queen Helena to find the cross. She has been told to make a huge bonfire and the direction of the smoke would guide her to the location of the cross. This bonfire is named Demera in Amharic and is an important part of the Meskel celebrations. The Demera is build on September 26th and in towns (Addis and Gondar) lit that same evening. In the countryside (Axum, Lalibela) it is also build on the 26th but lit in the next morning.

Everywhere colorful processions are held late afternoon on September 26th leading to the site of the Demera. In the countryside this is repeated the next day. After the bonfire is lit, the faithful wait for the fire to collapse. The direction of which the central pole will fall portends the quality of the upcoming harvest. The ashes of the Demera are believed to have curative powers and are used to make a cross on the forehead to protect against evil power.

In Addis Ababa the Demera is build on the main square in town which is named after the festival: Meskel Square.