Ethiopian Christianity reaches its apex in the churches of Lalibela, built into the rock of the Lasta Mountains. WORDS: Amar Grover

As we strolled up through town against a background of stark, impressive cliffs, wood-smoke veined through lanes and children scampered among thatched roundhouses. Our mule train contoured across the hillside, then zigzagged to a plateau of patchwork barley fields and wattle-and-daub huts. We climbed again until the mules could plod no further. The narrow path tapered to a notch grooved into the cliff. Steps tunnelled the last few yards, and beyond a wooden gate we emerged into a kind of courtyard. Before us stood a church hewn into the rock, its priest framed by a chiselled doorway.

His morning congregation gone, the priest had time to show us much-loved ancient treasures. There were ceremonial crosses with dangling scarves and exquisite illuminated gospels on vellum. Out on the surrounding precipice, we gazed down on crumpled hills and barren scarps, at thatched-hut hamlets with corrals of stakes and twigs. The church may have been a bit rough and ready but these views were anything but.

Ethiopia might not be one of Africa’s most accessible or visited destinations but it ranks among the most interesting. One of the world’s first Christian nations, it was never colonised by Europeans. It is perhaps the only nation whose leader inspired (albeit unwittingly) a faith – Rastafarians consider the late Emperor Haile Selassie (real name Ras Tafari) to have been a messiah. When Indiana Jones sought the Ark of the Covenant, he could have come to the north where, as any Ethiopian knows, it reputedly lies in a church in Axum guarded by special priests.

Clouding its glorious scenery and rich heritage, Ethiopia has been cursed by appalling famines and an absurd yet vicious war with Eritrea. For now, all is calm and quiet and adventurous travellers are returning.

Legends link bees to the creation of Ethiopia’s greatest sight. The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela lie in the remote Lasta Mountains where electricity, an all-weather road and airfield are barely a decade old. The churches are attributed to the 12th century King Lalibela who, as a child, attracted baffling swarms of bees. Viewed as an omen of kingship, the existing king – his brother – grew jealous and attempted to kill him. Perhaps through exile or from a mystical coma, Lalibela was inspired to build a kind of Ethiopian Jerusalem, although some experts, reckoning on a vast workforce, think the site’s creation spans centuries.

It’s an extraordinary place. About 2600m high, the air is clear and the light sharp. The town – more an overgrown village – is cradled by stark table mountains roamed by shepherds and hardy villagers journeying to distant hamlets. Several churches lie in remote parts of its hinterland where, if you’re trekking, accommodation might comprise a whiffy goatskin on a beaten earth floor.

Lalibela’s heart and soul resides back in town, straddling a ravine they call the River Jordan. There are two groups of churches, 12 in all, and most still draw pilgrims from across Ethiopia. Bet Giorgis (the 13th and slightly apart from the others) was, so the story goes, compelled by St George himself and remains the most celebrated part of this haunting site.

Along with the thousands of workers assumed to have laboured here, Lalibela’s achievement is breathtaking. When not excavating caves or fissures, its builders dug deep trenches from the relatively soft volcanic tuff. The resulting monoliths were then hollowed out and refined with bas-relief porticos, carvings, chapels and even pitched roofs.

Solomon, our guide, led us from trench to church to cave to fertility pool. A few cramped alcoves held ragged hermits or the embers of their fires or even, in one case, their ancient dried out bones. We fumbled down pitch-black passages and climbed up through trapdoors. Some churches are dark and bare; others are pierced by theatrical shafts of light and adorned with frescoes and carvings.

We passed the Tomb of Adam and stood awed within Golgotha. At Bet Medhane Alem, the world’s largest rock-hewn church, lie symbolic graves for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Place names here allude to an almost quirky tour of the Old and New Testaments. Isolated for centuries, Ethiopia generally and Lalibela in particular seem to have retained an almost arcane version of Christianity. Mysticism, too, is never far away. In Bet Abba, Libanos Solomon pointed to a gleaming spot high on the altar wall. Turning off his torch the gleam remained undimmed. A miracle,” he beamed, deflecting our chorus of doubt.

Of all these churches, Bet Giorgis is unique. In the shape of a cruciform tower, and rising around 15m from its sunken courtyard, it is also in extremely good condition with only patches of lichen tinting the reddish-brown rock. Go just before dawn when priests recite prayers in the light of candles and white-cloaked congregations sway and tremble amid pungent incense smoke – mesmerising and unforgettable.”