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ODE TO THE PAST (with the occasional nod to the present)


The church of Beta Giorgis in Lalibela
When I first arrived in Lalibela, I had the overwhelming feeling that I was in the presence of something extraordinary. The small town is situated about 7,500 feet above sea level in the mountains of northern Ethiopia. It's remote, and not easily reached, for a reason: it is a holy place that is accessible only to pilgrims and the dogged.

What makes it special is its concentration of rock hewn churches. There are 13 of them, each literally carved into the granitic mountainside. You stand on the ground and look down a precipice, in the midst of which is a rock building in the shape of a cross. Take a long flight of steps down, and you'll end up at the church's door.

These are marvels of architecture. Made in the 12th century by order of King Lalibela (also an Ethiopian saint in his day), legend has it they were carved with the aid of angels. (Another legend says they were constructed with the help of the Knights Templar; there is no substantiation for this, either.) The monolithic edifices are remarkably detailed for being carved of a single piece of stone. Inside, there are chambers for the holy of holies, for priests' study and worship, and for the faithful to gather. Some have remarkable iconography.

What's very cool--and, to me, inspiring--is the system of tunnels connecting the churches. The tunnel leading to the underground library of Yemrehana Krestos (which is fictional) in The Tenth Saint was based loosely off this concept.

As one of the holiest spots in Ethiopia (second only to Aksum), and indeed the entire world, Lalibela is worth the journey. To watch the white-robed, turbaned, staff-carrying Orthodox priests worship in Ge'ez (the ancient Ethiopian language) is to step back in time 800 years. Faith is palpable here. No wonder it's called "the second Jerusalem."
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