Ancient rock churches put Ethiopia back on tourist map

The world heritage site of Lalibela is key to Addis Ababa‘s plans to banish images of famine and boost visitor numbers.

Bet Giyorgis, or Church of St George, which is shaped like a cross. Photograph: Rex
Bet Giyorgis, or Church of St George, which is shaped like a cross. Photograph: Rex

Kiya Gezahegne joined an unruly, jostling throng surrounding a priest who wielded a 12th-century gold and bronze cross, one of the most sacred artefacts in Ethiopia. A young man shut his eyes and trembled from head to toe as he was blessed. Finally, Gezahegne stepped forward and stooped so the priest could tap the cross all over her body. “I felt close to God,” she said.

Steeped in ancient ritual, this was the scene revealed by dawn’s first light in the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. The cool morning air was filled with the smell of incense and the drumbeat and chanting of hundreds of pilgrims swathed in white robes, some kissing the walls. A sprinkling of foreign visitors groped through narrow crevices and labyrinthine tunnels. Earlier this year they included George W Bush and family and Evgeny Lebedev, the newspaper proprietor.

Lalibela – described by Hilary Bradt, the travel guide author, as “the number one sight in Ethiopia and perhaps the most astonishing man-made site in sub-Saharan Africa” – is crucial to a drive by officials to banish images of famine and conflict, and turn the east African country into a fashionable destination. A “tourism master plan” is being finalised to boost visitor numbers, which are already growing by 10% a year.

Read more at: The Guardian

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