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ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Orthodox priests lit a bonfire in the heart of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on Monday evening to mark the eve of Meskel, a festival to mark the finding of the cross of Jesus.
Tens of thousands of people, many holding up candles in the failing light as the sun set, crowded on terraces around the square where the ceremony was led by the head of Ethiopia's Christian Orthodox church, Patriarch Abune Mathias.
Dressed in his golden ceremonial robes, the patriarch delivered blessings to mark what the church believes was the discovery in the fourth century of the cross of Jesus by Queen Helena, the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great.
According to tradition, in 326 AD, Helena had prayed for guidance to find the cross on which Jesus was crucified and was directed by smoke from a burning fire to the location. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians believe she lit torches to celebrate.
The church tradition also records that the then Patriarch of Alexandria gave Ethiopian Emperor Dawit half of the cross in return for protecting Coptic Christians. A fragment of the cross is believed to be held in Ethiopia's Gishen Mariam monastery, about 100 km ( miles) north of the capital.
The celebration, in which hundreds or orthodox priests and deacons take part dressed in white robes, starts in the afternoon and ends after sunset, bringing the capital to a halt around its biggest square, which is called Meskel, the word for cross in the liturgical Ge'ez language.
The celebration has taken place in Addis Ababa since the city was founded more than 100 years ago.
The festival falls at the end of the rainy season and this year's celebration was preceded by a downpour, leaving priests to parade around large muddy puddles.
Families often hold their own celebrations by lighting smaller fires on streets outside their homes, before gathering inside to enjoy wine made from honey and "kitfo", the traditional food of raw minced meat in flat, dry bread.
After a night of festivities, Tuesday is a national holiday.
Additional reporting by Aaron Maasho,; Writing by Edmund Blair, Editing by Angus MacSwan