Before dawn, our guide Sefiwe was waiting for our little group to gather. In the darkness, we joined the flocks of white-robed pilgrims and made our way towards the rock-hewn church of Bet Maryam (House of Mary).
It was very early morning on 7 January: Christmas Day for the Ethiopian Orthodox church. We were in Lalibela, the town in the northern highlands that Ethiopian Christians consider their Jerusalem.
A world heritage site, the Churches of Lalibela – 13 in all – were carved out of rock in the 12th century after King Lalibela had a vision – quite a common occurrence in Ethiopian history. They are cut vertically downwards, so when we stood outside St Mary’s, the candles held by the milling worshippers illuminated a sheer facing cliff eight metres high.
All around us pilgrims were chanting. Just before 7am, in the day’s first light, a procession of 400 priests, including the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox church in his magnificent hat, progressed to the cliff-top above us. They stood in their white turbans, holding coloured shawls, shaking sistrums (a sort of musical rattle), swaying in unison and chanting to the sounds of slow drums and horns. And the congregation burst out ululating and clapping for joy.
“They represent the heavenly host,” explained Sefiwe, “the priests down here are the shepherds.”