The pre-dawn world and I are not the best of friends. In fact, I’m not even sure we’re on speaking terms after a lifetime of missed early-morning hikes, runs, and yoga classes. So I was more surprised than anyone to find myself outside an Ethiopian church at 5 am on a Sunday, moved to tears by one of the most remarkable experiences of my life.
The town of Lalibela is worthy of far more international attention than it gets—it deserves to top our bucket lists and grace our travel magazine covers. Yet part of its charm lies in its mystifying lack of foreign visitors. Because it is not just a niche heritage site; it is as majestic and awe-inspiring as the Machu Picchus of the world.
Its history alone is fascinating. In the 12th century, the Christian King Lalibela ordered the building of a second Jerusalem on Ethiopian soil when the original was captured in a 1187 AD raid by a Muslim faction. The result of his vision is 11 interconnected churches carved into the rose-gold mountain rocks and dug into the ground by hand—an extraordinary feat with or without the angels that, legend has it, lent a hand. These churches are perfectly preserved today, both delicate and monumental, impossible to detect at a distance but utterly majestic up close.
And unlike many of the world’s most impressive sites—Angkor Wat, say, or Notre Dame—Lalibela throbs with a living religious fervor. The handful of foreign visitors are rendered all but invisible by the thousand-strong crowd of monks and nuns, hermits and worshippers, children and grandmothers. All are wrapped in white and fervently kiss the walls and floors of the churches, and the feet of the orange-clad priests with an ecstasy last seen in New York nightclubs in the 1990s.
My brother and I arrived in Lalibela on a hot March day. As we approached the hilltop town by car, we passed an ever-growing blur of men, women, and children pouring in from the bone-dry hills and tackling the long, dusty road to Lalibela. In the lead up to any religious festival, pilgrims sleep on plastic sheets near the town—they can usually only afford to make this pilgrimage once in a lifetime.
By the time we arrived at the entrance to the churches it was late in the afternoon, but we had three days ahead of us (a time frame I would strongly recommend, as it is impossible to take in the atmosphere of the place on a whistle-stop one-day tour).
On first viewing, it’s the architecture of the place that grabs you; the way these dark pink rock-hewn churches sink invisibly below the ground, interconnected only by narrow tunnels. Their majestic, almost classical exteriors are reminiscent of Ancient Greece and Rome, but with hieroglyphics and Sanskrit carved in the walls. Small arched doors let you inside to admire the intricately painted ceilings, in which recognizable murals of the Madonna and Child are joined by a wandering lion or a dry Acacia tree.
Every church is extraordinary in its own way, but the best known is the Church of St. George, which is in the shape of a Greek Orthodox cross. We perched under a thorn tree and watched white-robed pilgrims drift around the four columns for hours.
We found that by day two, the entire ambiance of Lalibela felt intoxicating and we moved more slowly, sitting at the entrance to the churches and watching the rituals of the priests as they polished their crosses and blessed the arriving pilgrims. In the eastern set of churches, we hesitated in front of the entrance of a tunnel, unsure whether to go on. A group of young Ethiopians found us there and took us each by the hand, leading us through what we soon discovered was a representation of hell. Our guides chanted and made the sign of the crucifix on our backs. The stab of fear I felt during those minutes of complete darkness was replaced by the utter exhilaration of arriving in the blinking sunlight at the foot of yet another monumental church.
Late in the afternoon of our second day, we met a trainee priest. He snuck us into the evening service and we stood pressed against a wall, overwhelmed by the powerful scent of incense, the deafening chanting around us, and the ornately dressed priests praying below the Crucifix. Afterwards, he explained that to truly understand Lalibela we needed to attend the Sunday morning prayers the following day, which always start long before dawn.
Hence the 4:30 am alarm. After a jolting tuk-tuk journey under a pitch black sky, we were greeted by the sound of a choir, and a thousand-strong group of silent pilgrims flooding in from the town. We walked down to Biete Medhane Alem, the largest monolithic church in the world, where the service was taking place. Priests, each attired in jewel-hued robes and shaded by spectacular parasols (which are believed to represent the presence of the Holy Spirit), wandered through the narrow alleys. All around were their followers, alternately singing and ululating, praying or reading their bibles, some holding candles and coils of incense aloft.
My brother and I were entirely alone among the worshippers, a jeans-clad stain in this sea of pristine white shawls. We sat on a wall outside Biete Maryam and watched the processions pass us under the night sky; we saw a baptism of four babies by a priest in scarlet robes, candles illuminating their tiny faces. Every now and then, priests in canary-yellow or burnt-orange would pass us and smile. As dawn finally turned the sky grey and the spell we had been under for those last few hours broke, we wondered where all the other tourists were. Go now, before the world wakes up to what it’s missing.