In the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, the priests and their acolytes greet the sunrise with song.
Filling the space between church and the surrounding rock from which they were cut, there is the constant mumbling recitation of scripture from tiny handmade bibles. Gathered in the artificial courtyard surrounding the 10-metre-high stone church, the hierarchical crowd lean on prayer sticks, wrapped in their thick toga-like gabbis, eyes shut as they sway and sing their prayers. From this burbling baseline a single, nasal voice will burst – the caller names the tune, and a tumult of voices responds in Eucharistic song that breaks like hurried waves, each line rising and falling in a resonating vibration through these hand-hewn canyons before crashing down into the low murmur of chapter and verse. The songs produce a mesmerising effect, stretching out time, echoing in the mind, sanctifying the senses. Holy of holies, the great act of faith – the hollowing out of these hillsides – reinforced by endless devotion.
It is no exaggeration to say that the faithful of Lalibela have greeted the dawn in this way for hundreds of years, so much so that it seems to be as much a part of the chiselled rock as the intricate designs carved into the pillars, arches and windows – none built, all made by hand.
An unrecognised wonder of the world – churches cut not into cliff faces, but straight down into hillsides, forming a subterranean village connected by narrow ravines and tunnels smoothed by thousands of feet. Every feature, every room, every floor carved from the bare rock. Inside the churches are cool, even at noon, and are carpeted by rush mats and rugs, the walls elaborately carved or covered with images of saints, either painted onto cotton and plastered to the surface or propped up in huge frames. In one a man has slipped from closed-eye prayer into sleep, his faint snores rendered loud in the cavernous interior.
From the stunning simplicity of the ‘north-western cluster’ with its busy rectangular churches to the jumbled, maze-like random architecture of the ‘south-eastern cluster’ and the cruciform Bet Giyorgis, which stands alone – the rock churches of Lalibela are infused with more than 800 years of faith. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is unique. Often confused with the Copts of Egypt, the Ethiopian blending of pre-Deuteronomic Judaism and early Christian theology with a smattering of Islamic tradition has produced a church at one moment alien but at the same time so very recognisable to western Christianity.
Nowhere is a greater expression of its independence from the mainstream than Lalibela, named after the king whose dreams showed him a new Jerusalem cut out of stone. Hidden high in the mountains and ringed by trenches and courtyards, the sides of which are pock-marked by hermit cells and stone graves, two of them connected by a pitch-black fifty foot tunnel cut straight through the rock. These churches are not crumbling monuments of a forgotten past, resurrected for the amusement of tourists. They are the centre of a living, breathing religious community.
The pillars at the entrance to each church are kissed, touched with the forehead, kissed again, touched with the cheek, kissed again. Blind pilgrims in bright yellow wraps pray in corners, hermits sit on outcrops measure out cotton with which to mend their threadbare jackets as the unaccompanied voices rise and fall in praise, and the heat begins to seep into the passageways.
In Lalibela, the priests sing the songs of ages and the echoing rock sings back.