Lalibela is one of Ethiopia’s holiest cities and is a center of pilgrimage for much of the country. The population of Lalibela is almost completely Ethiopian Orthodox Christian. The layout and names of the major buildings in Lalibela are widely accepted, especially by the local clergy, to be a symbolic representation of Jerusalem, and as such it is called the Jerusalem of Ethiopia or the new Jerusalem.

Lalibela is a traditional Ethiopian small town of 20,000 people that is quiet most of the year. But things change dramatically just prior to the Christmas celebration on January 7th. At this time the population of Lalibela by approximately 50,000 pilgrims, many who have walked for as much as three months to the small town and its sacred carved churches. It sits atop a rugged mountain—8,600 feet above sea level— some 340 km north of Addis Ababa. In 1978, its 11 monolithic churches—carved out of the red volcanic stone in the 12th century, have been recognized by Unesco as a World Heritage Site.

It is the first time I have visited Lalibela and I know I have to return some day. The pilgrimage is an unforgettable experience. It was fascinating for me to observe and feel the total devotion expressed by the tens of thousands worshippers who have come to congregate in this very small place.

One cannot forget the ceremonies held within the church compounds on Christmas Eve. The courtyard is filled with people with no space to move around. In fact, it feels that as the chanting begins the crowd moves in unison , in a perfect wave like motion. And you really have no choice, the space between you and the person next to you is less than an inch.

The crowds wearing greyish outfits with a bit more colour for some of the women contrasted with the bright yellow and red outfits worn by the high clergy, the very organized yet not orchestrated crowd movements, the arms pointing to the sky, the kissing of the churches ‘walls, the quiet demeanour – were all contributing to the overwhelming sense of holiness.

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