Nearly eight centuries ago, 11 churches were carved into the Ethiopian earth. You don't have to be a believer to be intrigued by their mystery or awed by their majesty.
The pageant overfills the dusty road. Under the hot African sun, a knot of clergy in maroon, peach, and royal blue robes raises parasols and brass crosses. When the parade pauses, a cleric wipes the foreheads of two high priests, wrapped in velvet and balancing replicas of the tablets of Moses on their heads. A loudspeaker pulses a tenor's chant, and 20 men form two lines for a swaying dance to the jangle of handheld brass rattles.
It's the last day of Timkat, the three-day festival of the Epiphany and one of the holiest holidays in the Ethiopian calendar. The town of Lalibela seems given over to marching and chanting.
While living in various parts of Africa for the better part of a decade, I repeatedly heard of Ethiopia's treasured history--its rock-cut churches, ancient obelisks, and the castles built by emperors who traced their lineage to the biblical union of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
In a high valley, with striated mountains stretching upward around it, Lalibela is Ethiopia's main attraction. As the legend goes, King Lalibela's mother discovered her infant son covered by a swarm of bees that wouldn't sting. She took it as a sign he would one day rule and gave him the name Lalibela, meaning "the bees recognize his sovereignty."
Lalibela reputedly visited medieval Jerusalem soon after it fell to Saladin, the Muslim general who broke the spine of the Crusader kingdom. Lalibela pledged to rebuild the holy city in all its glory in Ethiopia. After a poisoning attempt by his older brother, the ruling king, sent Lalibela into a three-day coma, an angel is said to have carried his soul to heaven. It was there that God disclosed the designs for special churches that would be dug rather than built. When Lalibela's brother abdicated, the new monarch set to work. The 11 churches were built in 24 years. At night, while the masons slept, angels did the digging.
The churches are the ultimate destination of the Timkat parade. To outflank the procession and get there first, I scurry and slip among the spectators watching from the steep, rocky roadside. At the church compound gate, I pay the $22 entrance fee--good for the three days of my stay--and walk into a narrow trench not unlike those in northern Arizona. It's dark and cool. Rainwater gathers in small puddles, and there's a moist, subtle breeze. The calls of the Timkat procession are garbled in the distance as I ease into a rift in the rock and discover a network of canyons with steps, bridges, windows, and doors.
Lalibela's churches are, in essence, statues carved from the soft, red volcanic tuff of the town's central hills. Each church is a single piece of stone and still attached to bedrock. I remove my shoes and step inside Bet Golgotha. Light streams in through cross-shaped windows, revealing cruciform columns coated in a light, waxy skin--residue from years of incense. The floors feel like river stone, smoothed out by centuries of unshod feet.
Christianity came to Ethiopia in the 4th century, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has its own traditions. Christmas is a minor holiday, somewhere below Easter, Timkat, and the fall feast of Meskel. Whereas Catholicism elevated the crucifix as its most important symbol, the Ethiopian church put an emphasis on the Ark of the Covenant. Ethiopian Christians believe the Ark was brought to their country from King Solomon's court by the son he had with the Queen of Sheba. In the back of every church, behind a thick curtain through which only priests and deacons may pass, lies a replica of the Ark. Once a year, during Timkat, the Tablets of the Law are paraded before the laity.
I make my way through Bet Golgotha and stare at the curtain. Outside, the chanting rises in a crescendo; the priests will soon be returning. Behind the curtain lies the church's ark. And beyond that is said to be the tomb of King Lalibela, considered a saint by the Ethiopian church. A priest in the corner noisily rearranges his robes. I slip out through the door.
Each church has its own superlative: oldest, biggest, best preserved. Bet Gebriel-Rafael boasts a plunging façade; a long, pitch-black tunnel connects the intricately carved Bet Amanuel with the crumbling Bet Merkorios. My favorite church, Bet Giyorgis, was the last to be built. It's some distance from the others, carved in a cruciform shape. The plane of the roof lines up neatly with the surrounding rock, making it easy to imagine the flat bedrock that was there before Lalibela's craftsmen went to work.
Lalibela's rock-cut churches haven't suffered the abandonment of the temples of ancient Rome or Greece. Nor have they, like Notre-Dame in Paris, surrendered their religious space to tour groups. Visitors are encouraged, but the churches serve first of all as places of worship. Priests far outnumber tourists.