Lalibela is small dusty rural town, perched at an altitude of about 9000ft (2630mts), surrounded by craggy mountains.
This is where you will find the world's most astounding sacred sites. Each of the eleven rock hewn churches is carved entirely out of a single block of pink to red granite below ground level, some up to forty feet high. The roofs are ground level and dexterity is required to descend the often steep, rocky and rough steps that lead to trenches and courtyards. This vast area consists of a labyrinth of dark passageways, tunnels and ghostly grottos and incredible galleries with paintings and carvings.
Each church has its own resident monk who appears in the doorway in colorful faded brocade robes. Holding one of the church's elaborate processional crosses, usually made of silver, and sometimes a prayer staff, these monks are quite happy to pose for pictures. Some sport incongruously modern sunglasses with their splendid ensemble.
Self-appointed helpers help you on the steps as well as take care of your shoes, which you have to remove when you enter the churches. When you come out, you will find your shoes neatly lined up with the others.
Of Lalibela's eight to ten thousand people, there are over one thousand priests. Religious ritual is central to the life of the town, with regular processions, extensive fasts, and crowds of singing and dancing priests. This, combined with its extraordinary religious architecture and simplicity of life, gives the city of Lalibela a distinctively timeless, almost biblical atmosphere.
Erosion due mainly to weathering is damaging the stone surfaces of all the churches, so that restoration is a matter of urgency. Religious objects too, such as a cross, manuscripts and a wooden altar, must at all costs be preserved. UNESCO and the EU have put up temporary shelters with scaffolding that are somewhat unsightly and take away the special aura of this awesome place.