Meskel (Finding of the True Cross)

The festival of Meskel is commemorating the Finding of the True Cross. The celebration is 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 celebration is inscribed as the first Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in Ethiopia by UNESCO.

Meskel celebration in Axum, Demera in front of Maryam Tsion Church
Meskel celebrations in Axum


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 built on September 26th and in towns (Addis Ababa and Gondar) lit that same evening. In the countryside (Axum, Lalibela) it is also built on the 26th but lit the next morning.

Everywhere are colorful processions in the 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 in 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 built on the main square in town which is named after the festival: Meskel Square.