LALIBELA, ETHIOPIA-It’s a darkness so complete, it feels like a physical thing. The guide’s bright scarf serves as my beacon until it disappears into the deepest gloom imaginable, and I start to feel a bit claustrophobic as I follow him. All of the clichés apply, including the one about (not) seeing your hand in front of your face. I’ve never known the true meaning of that other one — about the light at the end of the tunnel — until we near the end of this 30-metre one, and emerge in a church courtyard. I ask the guide, Moges Melkamu, what people call that particular passage. “Oh, we just call it hell,” he says, lightly.
I’m in Lalibela, a small town cradled in the mountains of northern Ethiopia and home to 11 rock-hewn churches. Commissioned by King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela back in the 13th century, these places of worship had been created as a new Jerusalem for Ethiopian Orthodox pilgrims. Now recognized and protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, they continue to pull in people by the thousands from around the world, drawn to the biggest attraction in a country where tourism is on the rise.
I start the day at the largest of them all, Biete Medhane Alem, or House of the Saviour of the World, descending from ground level and circumnavigating the structure before we enter. Melkamu explains the basics as we go. We pass portraits of devotion — an impossibly elderly woman with a red-crossed hat reciting prayers, a man folded in behind the pillars of the church, doing the same — and Melkamu notes that Ethiopia had been one of the first countries to adopt Christianity. Actually mentioned in the biblical Book of Acts, Ethiopia adopted Christianity as its official state religion in the fourth century.
The churches here had been constructed at the direction of King Lalibela after the sultan Saladin captured Jerusalem in 1187. Carved from grey basalt and volcanic red scoria, “these were built by Ethiopians — with the help of the angels, of course,” Melkamu says.
It seems wherever we go, we see the faces of angels — Ethiopian ones —with beautiful round faces flanked by wings, staring at us from the ceiling, or from frescoes on the walls.
At Biete Maryam (House of Miriam), Melkamu pauses to kiss the doors before entering, then shows us the icons inside, which include ancient frescoes depicting the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt.
We also see priests everywhere, their heads wrapped in turbans and a wooden staff always at the ready. They gather together and walk past reading and talking and, like everyone else, praying.