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Sacred Africa: You don't have to be a believer

Nearly eight centuries ago, 11 churches were carved into the Ethiopian earth. You don't have to be a believer to be intrigued by their mystery or awed by their majesty.

The pageant overfills the dusty road. Under the hot African sun, a knot of clergy in maroon, peach, and royal blue robes raises parasols and brass crosses. When the parade pauses, a cleric wipes the foreheads of two high priests, wrapped in velvet and balancing replicas of the tablets of Moses on their heads. A loudspeaker pulses a tenor's chant, and 20 men form two lines for a swaying dance to the jangle of handheld brass rattles.

It's the last day of Timkat, the three-day festival of the Epiphany and one of the holiest holidays in the Ethiopian calendar. The town of Lalibela seems given over to marching and chanting.

While living in various parts of Africa for the better part of a decade, I repeatedly heard of Ethiopia's treasured history — its rock-cut churches, ancient obelisks, and the castles built by emperors who traced their lineage to the biblical union of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

In a high valley, with striated mountains stretching upward around it, Lalibela is Ethiopia's main attraction. As the legend goes, King Lalibela's mother discovered her infant son covered by a swarm of bees that wouldn't sting. She took it as a sign he would one day rule and gave him the name Lalibela, meaning "the bees recognize his sovereignty."

Lalibela reputedly visited medieval Jerusalem soon after it fell to Saladin, the Muslim general who broke the spine of the Crusader kingdom. Lalibela pledged to rebuild the holy city in all its glory in Ethiopia. After a poisoning attempt by his older brother, the ruling king, sent Lalibela into a three-day coma, an angel is said to have carried his soul to heaven. It was there that God disclosed the designs for special churches that would be dug rather than built. When Lalibela's brother abdicated, the new monarch set to work. The 11 churches were built in 24 years. At night, while the masons slept, angels did the digging.

The churches are the ultimate destination of the Timkat parade. To outflank the procession and get there first, I scurry and slip among the spectators watching from the steep, rocky roadside. At the church compound gate, I pay the $22 entrance fee — good for the three days of my stay — and walk into a narrow trench not unlike those in northern Arizona. It's dark and cool. Rainwater gathers in small puddles, and there's a moist, subtle breeze. The calls of the Timkat procession are garbled in the distance as I ease into a rift in the rock and discover a network of canyons with steps, bridges, windows, and doors.

Lalibela's churches are, in essence, statues carved from the soft, red volcanic tuff of the town's central hills. Each church is a single piece of stone and still attached to bedrock. I remove my shoes and step inside Bet Golgotha. Light streams in through cross-shaped windows, revealing cruciform columns coated in a light, waxy skin — residue from years of incense. The floors feel like river stone, smoothed out by centuries of unshod feet.

Christianity came to Ethiopia in the 4th century, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has its own traditions. Christmas is a minor holiday, somewhere below Easter, Timkat, and the fall feast of Meskel. Whereas Catholicism elevated the crucifix as its most important symbol, the Ethiopian church put an emphasis on the Ark of the Covenant. Ethiopian Christians believe the Ark was brought to their country from King Solomon's court by the son he had with the Queen of Sheba. In the back of every church, behind a thick curtain through which only priests and deacons may pass, lies a replica of the Ark. Once a year, during Timkat, the Tablets of the Law are paraded before the laity.

I make my way through Bet Golgotha and stare at the curtain. Outside, the chanting rises in a crescendo; the priests will soon be returning. Behind the curtain lies the church's ark. And beyond that is said to be the tomb of King Lalibela, considered a saint by the Ethiopian church. A priest in the corner noisily rearranges his robes. I slip out through the door.

Each church has its own superlative: oldest, biggest, best preserved. Bet Gebriel-Rafael boasts a plunging façade; a long, pitch-black tunnel connects the intricately carved Bet Amanuel with the crumbling Bet Merkorios. My favorite church, Bet Giyorgis, was the last to be built. It's some distance from the others, carved in a cruciform shape. The plane of the roof lines up neatly with the surrounding rock, making it easy to imagine the flat bedrock that was there before Lalibela's craftsmen went to work.

Lalibela's rock-cut churches haven't suffered the abandonment of the temples of ancient Rome or Greece. Nor have they, like Notre-Dame in Paris, surrendered their religious space to tour groups. Visitors are encouraged, but the churches serve first of all as places of worship. Priests far outnumber tourists.

Traveling in Ethiopia is like falling into a time warp
The country has its own calendar, similar to ours but seven years and eight months behind. During my visit, the new millennium was still months away (it began on September 12, 2007).

Even the clocks keep time differently. They start at 0:00 just before dawn and count up to sundown at 12:00, when another 12-hour cycle begins. (Since Ethiopia is close to the equator, there's little seasonal shift in daylight hours.) In Ethiopia, you eat breakfast around 2:00 — that is, two hours after dawn — and have lunch around 7:00. Most companies dealing with tourists, such as airlines and major hotels, give time in the conventional style, but confusion is inevitable. When a hotel clerk says an attraction closes at 8:00, does he mean after lunch or dinner?

So it's around 2:00 on the Ethiopian clock (two hours after dark) when I join a group of Spanish tourists at Unique Restaurant, a converted house on the north side of town. In terms of texture and spice, Ethiopian food is similar to Indian food. Stews are ladled onto a thin, slightly bitter pancake called injera. You tear off a piece with your fingers and scoop the stews into your mouth. The potent kick is great when washed down with one of Ethiopia's light, flavorful beers or a surprisingly good juice made of mild avocado, lime, and sugar.

The Italian occupation of Ethiopia lasted only five years, from 1936 to 1941, but left its mark in the menus, where you'll often find something resembling pizza and pidgin spellings of overcooked pastas: spegeti, tlateli, and so on. But when it comes to coffee, Ethiopia's culture is stronger than its erstwhile colonizer's. The country is a major coffee producer and exports only about half its crop. Ethiopians drink it black with salt or a lot of sugar. The coffee ceremony plays an important role in the culture, like teatime in England. Tradition calls for at least three espresso-strength cups: By the third, I'm sure I won't sleep for days.

We take the edge off at a bar everyone calls Torpedo, sipping tej, a honey liquor, out of long-necked bulbs. It's like mango juice with a bite. A man plays a single-stringed instrument, while a woman in white cotton dances, jerking her shoulders to the rhythm.

In most towns, the top hotel is the government-run Ghion chain, competently managed but decorated in the style of a 1960s cigar lounge. Lalibela also has a new, non-Ghion option, Tukul Village Hotel. Designed and built by an Ethiopian man and his Dutch wife, Tukul Village consists of six circular bungalows made of the same stone from which the churches were carved. Beds are draped in handwoven cotton, and bathrooms are clean and modern (no small blessing). A picture window opens onto a thin balcony. Across the dry, winding gorge that King Lalibela named the River Jordan, I can see the site of Bet Giyorgis. A priest calls out the morning prayers, but the church is deep in its hole, completely out of sight.

Near the end of my visit to the churches, I overhear a young man guiding some tourists and ask him to show me the churches outside of town. Terekbe Mersha studied tourism in Addis Ababa and returned to Lalibela a few years ago to work as a guide. As we hike up to Asheton Maryam, a mountaintop monastery, we make frequent stops, taking lots of pictures, not so much for the memories as for me to catch my breath.

The following day, Terry (as he prefers to be called) rents us a 4x4. The road drops off the Lalibela plateau and across rolling hills, where oxen work wooden plows and shepherd boys swing crooked staves. Our destination is Yemrehanna Kristos, a freestanding church nestled under a mountainside overhang. With alternating strips of wood and gypsum, it's built in the conventional style rather than carved. Inside, the only lighting is the spears of sunlight through the cruciform windows; my flashlight's beam can pick out geometric designs on the arches and lintels.

Behind the church lie the bones of what the priest says are thousands of pilgrims who traveled over the past centuries from as far away as Jerusalem to die here. It's dark, and as I step forward, my flashlight catches what looks like a bowl, half buried in the hard dirt. It's a human skull. There's another skull by my foot — a half-step to the right, and I would've kicked it. As I move quickly back toward the church, Terry points out other bones jutting out from the dirt. I was walking over a mass grave.