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.
TRAVELING IN ETHIOPIA IS LIKE FALLING INTO A TIME WARP. The country has its own calendar, similar to ours but seven years and eight months behind. During my visit, the new millennium was still months away (it began on September 12, 2007).
Even the clocks keep time differently. They start at 0:00 just before dawn and count up to sundown at 12:00, when another 12-hour cycle begins. (Since Ethiopia is close to the equator, there's little seasonal shift in daylight hours.) In Ethiopia, you eat breakfast around 2:00--that is, two hours after dawn--and have lunch around 7:00. Most companies dealing with tourists, such as airlines and major hotels, give time in the conventional style, but confusion is inevitable. When a hotel clerk says an attraction closes at 8:00, does he mean after lunch or dinner?
So it's around 2:00 on the Ethiopian clock (two hours after dark) when I join a group of Spanish tourists at Unique Restaurant, a converted house on the north side of town. In terms of texture and spice, Ethiopian food is similar to Indian food. Stews are ladled onto a thin, slightly bitter pancake called injera. You tear off a piece with your fingers and scoop the stews into your mouth. The potent kick is great when washed down with one of Ethiopia's light, flavorful beers or a surprisingly good juice made of mild avocado, lime, and sugar.
The Italian occupation of Ethiopia lasted only five years, from 1936 to 1941, but left its mark in the menus, where you'll often find something resembling pizza and pidgin spellings of overcooked pastas: spegeti, tlateli, and so on. But when it comes to coffee, Ethiopia's culture is stronger than its erstwhile colonizer's. The country is a major coffee producer and exports only about half its crop. Ethiopians drink it black with salt or a lot of sugar. The coffee ceremony plays an important role in the culture, like teatime in England. Tradition calls for at least three espresso-strength cups: By the third, I'm sure I won't sleep for days.
We take the edge off at a bar everyone calls Torpedo, sipping tej, a honey liquor, out of long-necked bulbs. It's like mango juice with a bite. A man plays a single-stringed instrument, while a woman in white cotton dances, jerking her shoulders to the rhythm.
In most towns, the top hotel is the government-run Ghion chain, competently managed but decorated in the style of a 1960s cigar lounge. Lalibela also has a new, non-Ghion option, Tukul Village Hotel. Designed and built by an Ethiopian man and his Dutch wife, Tukul Village consists of six circular bungalows made of the same stone from which the churches were carved. Beds are draped in handwoven cotton, and bathrooms are clean and modern (no small blessing). A picture window opens onto a thin balcony. Across the dry, winding gorge that King Lalibela named the River Jordan, I can see the site of Bet Giyorgis. A priest calls out the morning prayers, but the church is deep in its hole, completely out of sight.
Near the end of my visit to the churches, I overhear a young man guiding some tourists and ask him to show me the churches outside of town. Terekbe Mersha studied tourism in Addis Ababa and returned to Lalibela a few years ago to work as a guide. As we hike up to Asheton Maryam, a mountaintop monastery, we make frequent stops, taking lots of pictures, not so much for the memories as for me to catch my breath.
The following day, Terry (as he prefers to be called) rents us a 4x4. The road drops off the Lalibela plateau and across rolling hills, where oxen work wooden plows and shepherd boys swing crooked staves. Our destination is Yemrehanna Kristos, a freestanding church nestled under a mountainside overhang. With alternating strips of wood and gypsum, it's built in the conventional style rather than carved. Inside, the only lighting is the spears of sunlight through the cruciform windows; my flashlight's beam can pick out geometric designs on the arches and lintels.
Behind the church lie the bones of what the priest says are thousands of pilgrims who traveled over the past centuries from as far away as Jerusalem to die here. It's dark, and as I step forward, my flashlight catches what looks like a bowl, half buried in the hard dirt. It's a human skull. There's another skull by my foot--a half-step to the right, and I would've kicked it. As I move quickly back toward the church, Terry points out other bones jutting out from the dirt. I was walking over a mass grave.