From architects to explorers, experts reveal what they feel are the most beautiful places on earth. For Dan Cruickshank, an architectural historian and BBC television presenter, Ethiopia’s Lalibela is the most beautiful place in the world.
The rock churches of Lalibela are a wonderful reversal of the normal process of construction, whereby one creates space by building. Here one excavates space by burrowing in: mistakes cannot be put right because you’ve cut into the rock itself.
There are about a dozen churches around Lalibela, hewn from the rock on which the town sits. It is a remote place – more so now than it was in the 12th century, when the Ethiopian king Lalibela first created it as an African version of Jerusalem. But it still has a strong sense of pilgrimage. I visited for my series Around the World in 80 Treasures and arrived during a quite astonishing festival. Empress Helena is celebrated in Orthodox Christianity for having found the true cross and every September the town holds a feast in her honour, with parades of the Lalibela Cross – a sacred 12th-century relic. Being there at this time heightened one’s senses and inflamed one’s imagination. Ideas of the holiness of rock pop up all around the world – in the pyramids of Egypt, the structures at Petra and at Stonehenge. Seeing buildings sculpted from rock makes you think of the very nature of architecture. It makes you aware of the possibilities of invention and imagination.