John Jannuzzi

Lalibela, a Far Off Place Well Worth a Long Journey

John Jannuzzi
Lalibela, a Far Off Place Well Worth a Long Journey

By Danielle Pergament
Photos by Jason Florio

The drive in is a killer. The roads are vertical and, while technically, they’re paved, if you think of them like dirt roads you’ll be less surprised by the bumps and holes. If you drive at night, like I did, you’re an idiot. There are no street lamps or bright billboards or really much in the way of road signs. Nor is there a shoulder or guardrail between your jeep and a deathly steep cliff. There will be shepherds, horses, monkeys, and occasional mating donkeys — all of whom share the road with you and none of whom are all that concerned about getting out of your way.  But then, finally, impossibly, you arrive.

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Lalibela is an ancient holy town in northern Ethiopia. This is a birthplace of Christianity — a medieval town of churches believed to have been built between the seventh and 12th centuries, most of which have UNESCO Heritage Site status. We tend think of Christianity as: Rome. In fact, Ethiopia adopted Christianity in the early 4th century and much of the population is still Orthodox Christian.

I was with my friend and photojournalist Jason Florio and our guide Tariku. We had driven the twelve plus hours from Addis Ababa to Lalibela mainly because I was too scared to fly (though while Jason had packed our truck with water and supplies, Tariku whispered to me that he, too, was very relieved we didn’t take a local prop plane). We pulled in the day before Orthodox Easter, and the town was already teeming with thousands and thousands of devout Ethiopians who had made the pilgrimage to one of their country’s holiest sites.

There is nothing that can prepare you for Lalibela. Imagine a hilltop — dry, rocky, unforgiving — with smatterings of greenery, every view vast and humbling. And on this hilltop: stone churches carved into the land. Not surprisingly, people have called it Africa’s Petra. But the beauty of Petra, while undoubtedly breathtaking, is diminished by the crowds — hordes of tourists who come by the busload. It’s almost impossible to feel the weight of Petra in a true and honest way because you are constantly aware of being in one of the most famous ancient cities in the world. Lalibela is a world away.

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This is a holy land — and not the kind you can take home on keychains or calendars. There is a palpable reverence here. The people come to worship, to pray; they do not come to document, to prove that they flew 7,000 miles from home. The churches of Lalibela aren’t carved into the mountainside, as they are in Petra. Many are carved into the top of the mountain. How this was possible over a thousand years ago is unfathomable.

Jason, Tariku, and I walked to our accommodations for the night — two small, tidy rooms close to the center of town. We dropped our bags and made our way through the warm, breezy evening to a rock-hewn church carved from the earth in the shape of a cross. Easter is a special time in Lalibela. And by “special” I mean crowded. Thousands and thousands of pilgrims, all dressed in gauzy white wraps, flood the eleven churches of Lalibela, leaving their shoes and fear of small spaces at the door.

We spent the evening in various churches, chanting, listening, being blessed. I have never been particularly religious, but that night was different. (And by “night,” I mean prayers last straight until the next morning and then keeps going.) Something happens when you spend the evening holding hands with strangers in these churches — these formidable stone structures erected from the most ancient of lands, these holy sites carved artfully and impossibly on the mountaintop. You are a million miles from anything familiar, and yet you feel like you are home. I’m not sure I’d call it god; I’d call it magical.

Danielle Pergament is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn with her husband and two children. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic, and GQ.