ETHIOPIA: Suspended in Time

The moon shines brightly, as white robe and candle mark the lines of pilgrims winding their way up the hillside, to reach the ancient rock-hewn churches of Lalibela — a sacred place for those of the Christian faith since the 12th century.

According to the legends, men and angels worked together to construct the remarkable rock-hewn churches of Lalibela — the men working through the day and the angels taking over during the night.

Many historians believe that these great monolithic churches were commissioned during the reign of Saint Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, who ruled Ethiopia in the late 12th century and early 13th century, when the town was known as Roha. When Lalibela, whose name means “the bees recognise his sovereignty” in Old Agaw, was born, it is said that a swarm of bees surrounded him, which his mother took as a sign of his future reign as Emperor of Ethiopia. So the mythos tells us, Lalibela later visited Jerusalem, and after its capture by the Muslim caliphate in 1187 he swore to build another such sacred place of pilgrimage in his own country.

Each of Lalibela’s eleven churches was carved from a single piece of solid rock to symbolize spirituality and humility. The churches seem timeless, painstakingly excavated from the ground itself. It is believed that they were constructed first by digging out a kind of moat and were then hewn from the square rock that remained. The degree of craftsmanship and countless hours of heavy manual labour that it must have taken to carve out these wonders with hand tools alone is astounding. The churches are connected through a labyrinth of tunnels and sit beside a small river, called Jordan, and many other features also have Biblical names.

Just as astounding as the architecture, is that the churches have been in continuous use throughout the centuries since they were built.

Today, Lalibela is a town of no more than ten thousand people, but over a tenth of those are priests. Ritual and religion are the twin fulcrums upon which life in this place spins. Many times a year, there are processions, fasting, dancing, and the sound of many voices lifted up in song.

I feel privileged to have been in the holy city of Lalibela on many occasions and it continues to be one of the most fascinating photography trips I take anywhere in the world. It is a jump back in time, a photographic journey beyond compare. With the churches dimly lit by flickering candles, surrounded by faith and roughhewn rock — it is an entire world suspended in the 12th century.

Easter week in Lalibela is the most extraordinary in the year, when many thousands of devotees dressed in white will gather from all over the country, and father afield, to profess their love and Christian faith.

We land, and I arrive at the tiny, ancient airport terminal. To the left is an unmoving, rusted out conveyor belt with no hope of resurrection. Dragging my bags along behind me I reach the famous ‘Shuttle’. We are told to put the bags around back in the trunk. It is jammed, of course.

A few people toss their bags on the roof and the rest keep them on their laps once seated. I find a seat wedged between my bags and the stairwell, ending up intimately, uncomfortably close to my seat-mate. After a flat and long slow climb we reach the town on three and a half wheels.

“Ferengui... Ferengui...” (Foreigner... Foreigner...), I hear them murmuring amongst themselves. The time is 5:30 in the morning, and it is still dark. The inside of the church is small, austere, and it is difficult to move around discreetly by oneself let alone with a camera, and no cloak to help me meld with the darkness so thick that the eyes can hardly adjust. There is a candle here and there, occasional light through a tiny upper window, and the sudden glare of an opening door. Precious little else to see by.

The moon shines brightly over the hillsides and the lines of ascending faithful are seen thanks to the candles they carry up towards the church. In the morning half-light, the first chants begin. Voices lift.

Suspended in a parenthesis of time, I am witness to the rising dawn over the year 1100, as the first light breaks free of the horizon.

Swathed in long white robes, men and women come up the hill in silence. The lines of the path are drawn in the darkness by cloth and candle.

I have found a spot to wait in, where the faithful will have to pass by me. The more timid among them hid their faces in their cloaks, but the less so look at me squarely in the eyes. No aggression. Simply curious, trying to discern what on earth I am doing up here before dawn, if I am not here to pray, and what I am so patiently photographing.

The hours seem like moments, and I am alone, though among many. The fervor of the devotees as I move through the shadowed churches touches me deeply. These scenes, even for a skeptic who tries to stay propped behind his camera and maintaining distance, are magical. Moving.





Harry Fisch is a travel photographer and leader of photo tours to exotic destinations with my company Nomad Photo Expeditions. He is also a winner and loser of the 2012 World National Geographic Photo Contest.