x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

A past carved in stone

Into the wild Lalibela's churches in northern Ethiopia stand the test of time.

People pray during the morning mass at Saint George, a rock-hewn church in Lalibela.
People pray during the morning mass at Saint George, a rock-hewn church in Lalibela.

The tiny Fokker F50 propeller plane passed over a landscape of jagged mountains and dark blue rivers as it flew towards Lalibela, one of northern Ethiopia's biggest tourist draws. From the air the harsh landscape seemed uninviting. As the plane descended, however, the sharp edges of the hills softened and more greenery appeared. After a bumpy landing in the tiny airport, I piled into a Toyota van that noisily made its way up windy mountain roads towards the town, passing yellowed croplands on the way.

Lalibela attracts coach loads of package tourists keen to see its renowned rock-hewn churches as well as independent travellers visiting on the cheap. I was trying to keep to a strict a budget, so I let the van drop me off at the Asheten Hotel, a backpacker hangout with musty rooms, plastic chairs and tables and a fine mountain views. A group of workmen were using mud and rocks to build a small extension as I arrived.

I stepped out of my hotel and passed children wearing little but rags playing in the sunshine. Under some trees stood two bright blue table football tables, each with the word Manchester written on the side in red. Young boys and teenagers leaned against the tables and chatted as battered four-wheel drives edged past. In much of the town, the people lived in tiny circular huts with thatched roofs, although further out there were modern rectangular ones covered with corrugated metal.

As I walked along the dusty roads in the town with a population of 15,000 - there seemed to be just one main street that was paved - I attracted attention every few seconds. Whether I was being approached by an adult asking for money or a child hoping I would give them my water bottle, I found it difficult to relax and simply enjoy the sights and sounds. Lalibela, for all the tourist dollars it generates, is still poor and tourists are often seen as potential goldmines.

The subterranean churches of Lalibela's Unesco world heritage site, however, are a different world. Inside one block of rock - measuring more than 33m long, 23m wide and 11m high - dusty rugs were spread across the floor in a dark and dank nave. A priest wearing a robe layered with yellow, orange, green and purple, his hair covered in a white turban, was busy showing off a series of elaborate metal crosses to an awestruck group of tourists, their cameras occasionally flashing and illuminating the gloom. He took payment for opening up his church's hidden treasures to the gawping visitors - a common practice in Lalibela.

Bet Mehane Alem, my first stop on a tour of Lalibela's sacred sites, is one of the most imposing in all of Ethiopia and is thought to be the largest church in the world hewn from a single rock slab. Lalibela was the capital of the Zagwe Dynasty in the 12th and 13th centuries, during which these churches were constructed under the auspices of Ethiopia's Orthodox Church. Each one here is connected with the rest through tunnels and passageways carved from the huge expanse of soft, red volcanic rock. Many are surrounded on all sides by the remains of the rock from which they were once excavated

From Bet Mahane, I descended into a short tunnel to another church called Bet Maryam. This less impressive structure lacks Bet Mehane Alem's physical presence, but does hide a beautifully decorated interior of columns and fading frescoes. A short walk away lies Bet Golgotha, the only one of Lalibela's 11 churches that women are not permitted to enter. It houses a series of reliefs depicting seven saints. One of them, his face blackened by the passage of time, reminded me of a mummified body from ancient Egypt that I had once seen in a museum.

After leaving these churches, I headed to a residential area and crossed a flat of bare rock that has become a pedestrian thoroughfare. I rubbed shoulders with elderly people and schoolchildren wandering home before turning off the road and clambering up to the south-eastern group of churches. Being less spectacular than the north-western cluster, these buildings attract fewer tourists and many coach parties pass them by. Indeed, I had a couple of the churches to myself as I wandered. To get to them, though, I first had to walk through a tiny, pitch black tunnel before emerging within the complex.

The churches' walls are covered with frescoes, which have been bleached by the sunlight coming through the windows and damaged by the hands of thousands of worshippers. In some parts, barely visible on the rock, the paintings have an eerie, ghostlike quality. While some of the frescoes have been lightened to be almost colourless, the icons that are normally shielded behind curtains could not have been more contrasting. Their vivid hues of blue, green, red, orange and yellow are kept covered by the caretaker priests until visitors pass by and offer them a tip. The ground is covered with almost equally bright yellow, blue, white and pink rugs; one harboured a flea that found its way into my sock.

The walls of one church reached up to an uncarved section of rock, which stretches across the church's roof on both sides. By the time I arrived, its thick wooden door was padlocked. I attempted to catch a glimpse of its interior through a thin opening, only to see pitch black. Disappointed but undeterred, I carried on my way, because I had saved the best till last - the stunning Bet Giyorgis, a church that sits apart from the two groups of buildings, as if aware of its unrivalled appeal. Its interior was extraordinary. In the rock around the church are recesses containing piles of crumbling bones resting beneath the sublime architecture that looks over them. It is said that these are the remains of sick pilgrims who travelled to Lalibela to die here.

On my second day in the town, I hiked up to Asheten Maryam, a monastery thought to have been founded during Lalibela's reign. I set off along roads winding their way up the mountainside. Trying to follow the path, I passed women carrying heavy plastic sacks on their backs. Further up, after I had negotiated a series of rocky pathways, I reached a village where an old man was harvesting wheat by hand. A bright-eyed but scruffy little boy grabbed my empty plastic water bottle and clutched it as though it were a birthday present.

Eventually, I reached the monastery, which is a cruder version of the churches in Lalibela. But the views it commanded in all directions over the surrounding countryside more than made up for its lack of sophistication. From this height, Lalibela looked like pieces of speckled cloth spread on top of a series of hills. It was hard to believe that nestled within the hundreds of dots on the ground, most representing simple dwelling of one kind or other, were clusters of some of the most incredible buildings ever created.