Lalibela in Ethiopia is one of those places that once you've seen pictures of it you will always want to go there.. For years I've seen articles and images of the amazing monolithic churches carved out of the rock and thought that one day I'd have the chance to get there and see it for myself. Fortunately that chance came a few years ago on a photo/research trip through northern Ethiopia with a writer/photographer friend of mine. Not only did we get to spend a few days at Lalibela but we also chose to visit at one of the best times of year - during the Ethiopian Orthodox Easter celebrations when thousands of pilgrims come from all over the country to pray.
The 11 rock hewn churches at Lalibela are thought to have been built during the reign of Saint Gebre Mesqel Lalibela who ruled Ethiopia in the late 12th century and early 13th century. Biete Giyorgis (above) is probably the best preserved and most finely executed and iconic of all the churches and is carved out of the top of a sandstone hill.
Over the Orthodox Easter period people flocked into Lalibela in their thousands, coming from all over Ethiopia as well as abroad to pray and attend the numerous services and processions that were taking place around the churches at all times of day and night. The devotion of the visitors was incredible - sleeping in and around the churches, praying and studying the Holy scriptures seemingly their entire waking hours.
After dark the place took on an altogether different atmosphere. Wandering around the churches in the near pitch black was an intense experience, at times you would be on your own trying to find your way down rock carved alleys from one church to another and the next moment you'd be surrounded by pilgrims walking in endless circles round one of the churches. One particular moment I will never forget was hearing the distant drone of many people chanting and the sound of the brass rattles (sistrum) used throughout the churches in Ethiopia - following the resonating sound down the passages it led to a small carved out where I witnessed a scene that can barely have changed since the days when the churches were first chiseled from the sandstone. A group of Deacons lit only by waxed tapers and clad in simple white robes rocked rhythmically back and forward in unison to the sound of drums and sistrum. Off the main chamber another priest swung a glowing censer that permeated the air with the intoxicating smell of incense, the roof blackened with the waxy soot of nearly a millenium of prayer.
Outside in the main areas surrounding the sunken churches, dozens of pilgrims wrapped in simple shawls curled up in whatever space they could find to try and snatch an hour or two of chilly sleep whilst those around carried on their prayers by the dim flickering light of a taper.
I shot everything during this trip on the Canon 5d mkll, my main camera at the time. The cameras low light performance never fails to amaze - the 5dlll I now use is amazingly even better. The ability to shoot in seemingly near darkness without having to resort to lighting is fantastic.