The small town of Lalibela, high in the mountains of northern Ethiopia, some 645 kilometers from Addis Ababa, is one of the most important pilgrimage sites of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The eleven monolithic churches, carved out of volcanic tufa rock in the 13th century, are together, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There are two main groups of churches. To the north of the River Jordan there is Biete Medhani Alem (House of the Saviour of the World), Biete Mariam (House of Mary), Biete Maskal (House of the Cross), Biete Denagel (House of Virgins), Biete Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha Mikael). To the south of the river, Biete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel), Biete Qeddus Mercoreus (House of St. Mercoreos), Biete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos), Biete Gabriel Raphael (House of Gabriel Raphael), and Biete Lehem (House of Holy Bread). The eleventh church, Biete Ghiorgis (House of St. George), is isolated from the others but connected by a system of trenches.
Ethiopian Christmas or Genna is one of the highly celebrated feast days of Lalibela. Although Ethiopian Christmas is on January 7, there will be different ceremonies held around the rock-hewn churches starting the night of January 4th. The faithful wear a thin cotton wrap and gather in the churches to celebrate the birth of Christ in a beautiful ceremony, throughout the night.
In the town of Lalibela, the colorful celebration of Genna coincides with the birthday of King Lalibela, who is given the credit for constructing the 11 churches some 880 years ago. While celebrating Genna at Lalibela, the clergy venerate the miraculous events that occurred when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Angels and herds praised God as Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The clergy of Lalibela commemorates this moment at the cliff of Beta Mariam Church. They do so by performing a hymn, one half sang at the top of the cliff, and the other half at the bottom. While the clergymen at the top of the cliff symbolize the angels, those at the bottom represent the herds.
This is an ancient Christian tradition that has remained unchanged over the centuries. Seeing this event, one feels as if one is transported centuries back in time.
The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela have long been the main attraction for tourists traveling to Ethiopia.