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Rock churches of Lalibela, the Jerusalem of Ethiopia

It’s 4 o’clock on a Sunday morning when a trail of figures dressed in white emerges from the deep darkness. Quietly, the summoned crowd makes its way down a cluster of ancient structures as the slow beat from traditional skin drums beckons.


It’s a common scene here in Lalibela, a small town in northern Ethiopia that’s home to 11 spectacular churches carved both inside and out from a single rock some 900 years ago. The chiseled creations have turned this mountain town into a place of pride and pilgrimage for worshipers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, attracting 80,000 to 100,000 visitors every year.

“It is one of the very important places for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church people,” says local guide Fikru Woldegiorgis, who’s lived here most of his life. “There is a belief that Lalibela pilgrims share the same blessing as pilgrims to Jerusalem,” he explains. “They have to come at least once in a lifetime.”

And they come from all over.

Even though Lalibela sits in a remote region of Ethiopia, the faithful will walk for days, even weeks, to get here, many of them traversing the rugged mountains barefoot. Amongst them, blind men and women and people with disabilities also join the pilgrimage, making their way along Lalibela’s winding, hilly roads to reach the sacred site.

“What makes the Lalibela churches important is that they are still in use,” says Woldegiorgis. “It’s not a museum; it’s a living heritage. Every day, every morning, there is a service in all the churches.”

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