Ethiopia's Rock of Ages, Balm of the Faithful

ALIBELA, Ethiopia — Awakened to the chill of a wintry dawn in this mist-covered town hidden in the mountains of northern Ethiopia, peasants and priests groped through dark stone-pitted dirt roads on their way to prayer. After climbing to the town's highest hills, they descended into pits carved out of rock, inside which rose stately 800-year-old churches that were hewn, it is said, by a king laboring during the day and by angels toiling at night.

In this, one of the holiest places in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the scene has changed little through the centuries, unfolding daily as a lasting reminder that this nation in the Horn of Africa was one of the first lands to adopt Christianity, in the fourth century.

Hermits sat in tombs carved in reddish walls blanketed with moss glistening from the rains. The faithful, in white robes, moved from church to church, walking through labyrinthine tunnels to reach a house of worship in a cave, clambering up slippery steps into a monolithic one, halting along the way to press their lips against the moist sacred walls.

Past the sandals left at the entrance and into the largest church, the Bet Medhane Alem, some worshipers leaned against pillars and read from their Bibles, others knelt on the cold carpeted stone floor, others still gathered in the sanctuary to listen to a young priest reading from an ancient copy of the New Testament. The deacon stumbled through several passages, reading in Ge'ez, an ancient language that very few Ethiopians understand today, and was corrected by two older men flanking him.

In the capital, Addis Ababa, the service would have been performed in Amharic, the national language, or mixed with Ge'ez. But here in Lalibela, the rituals seem frozen in time. This is a place with more donkeys than cars, and not a single bank. It is home to 11 rock-hewn churches that are not only among the most impressive monuments in sub-Saharan Africa, but are also still used today for daily worship.

Still, even Lalibela today finds itself caught between Ethiopia's unique history in Africa and more pressing modern needs. Even Lalibela has lost some of its young to Protestantism. Its churches — having survived, in the last quarter century, Marxist rule, a civil war and the effects of a recent war between Ethiopia and Eritrea — have grown impoverished, bereft of the tourists who sustained them. More important, fewer young men want to become priests today.

"Sometimes they are not paid," said Gebez Abebe-Abebaw, 53, the chief priest of Na'akuto La'ab, a church built in a mountain cave a few miles from here. "So they do not want to stay with the church, but rather go into the fields and farm."

"I tell them to come to church," he said, not bothering to mention their reaction.

So powerful is the Orthodox Church, with an estimated 25 million believers in the country, that few Ethiopians here will speak openly of its troubles. Privately, though, residents tell of a relative or friend who has converted, especially to Pentecostalism, attracted by the faith's modern practices. In most cases, the families keep it a secret or send the convert away from Lalibela, said one tourist guide.

The leading priests here tend to dismiss the conversions, saying Protestant missionaries are using their wealth to buy conversions.

"It is not because we are not modernizing," said Wodjanew Aseffa, 46, the chief priest of Bet Giyorgis, a sunken, monolithic church whose roof is shaped like a Greek cross. Speaking of converts, he added: "It is because they are financed by foreigners. If they convert, they get money."

In some people's eyes, the priests have lost standing because of a widely held belief here that they have been involved in the trafficking of ancient artifacts from the churches. In the last decade, many crosses, paintings and books have vanished from Lalibela's churches only to reappear in black markets in Europe.

In 1997, one of Ethiopia's most sacred artifacts, a 12th-century gold- and-bronze cross — said to have been made by King Lalibela, who gave this town its name and churches — was stolen from Bet Medhane Alem church. After a Belgian collector was stopped from taking it into Belgium by customs officials there, the cross was returned to Ethiopia in 1999.

The priests here deny that any of them were involved in any trafficking. Pointing out that a Muslim Ethiopian had been arrested in the theft of the Lalibela cross, Besfat Ayalew, 35, the secretary to the bishop, said: "The Muslims are doing this. They are trying to destroy the Christian religion in Ethiopia."

On average, senior priests are paid about $20 a month; deacons about $2. And as the line of impatient priests outside the bishop's headquarters showed, they are paid irregularly.

Despite everything, though, the Orthodox Church still stands unrivaled in Ethiopia, helping to preserve a national unity and identity seen in few places on the continent. Although Ethiopia has long had a significant Muslim population and a very small Jewish one, the Orthodox Church served as the country's state religion from the fourth century to the Marxist coup in 1974.

What is more, in a country relatively untouched by European colonialism, Ethiopia's religion and culture remained largely homegrown. And to anyone who has traveled throughout Africa, the differences are sometimes striking.

One immediately notices, for instance, that Ethiopians have kept their way of expressing time according to a 12-hour day. They start counting at 6 A.M., so that hour 1 is 7 A.M. — and the result is that many Ethiopians, especially those in the countryside, keep their watches set 6 hours behind the way time is expressed in the rest of the region.

Religion and culture may provide anchors here. But countries like Nigeria or Congo, ruined by decades of post-colonial misrule, have seen a mushrooming of sects and religions that have further splintered their societies. Those two nations, like many others in Africa, appear adrift, with few common values to guide them forward.

Casual conversations with Ethiopians invariably reveal a strong national pride, while in much of the rest of Africa, pride is usually ethnic.

One result is the difference in domestic tourism. Elsewhere on the continent, it is rare to see Africans, even those in places that are wealthier than Ethiopia, visiting sites in their own countries. By contrast, Ethiopian tourists are everywhere in the country; according to figures from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in Lalibela, in the last seven years at least a third of the tourists to Lalibela — a town of under 100,000 people — were Ethiopians themselves.

Those Ethiopians do not include the tens of thousands of pilgrims who arrive here every January for the Orthodox Christmas. They are also drawn by national myths that have unusual power in Ethiopia.

King Lalibela, it is said, was instructed by God to build churches that the world had never seen. So he decided, not simply to build beautiful churches, but to carve 11 churches out of red rock. Having lived in Jerusalem for a number of years, King Lalibela was said to want to build nothing less than a New Jerusalem here. A Star of David can be seen sculptured in the wall of one church.

Archaeologists believe thousands of workers toiled for decades to complete the 11 churches here. But legend says that it took only 23 years and one man, albeit with some help.

"God showed King Lalibela where to carve the churches," said Gebez Melese-Demese, 40, a high-ranking priest. "He would carve one meter during the day, and the angels would carve three meters at night."

Some who have left the faith, or others in the cities, may have their doubts, but not the believers here.

The hermit living in a hole in the wall next to Bet Medhane Alem, Aba Wolde Maryam, 74, said he had been there since 1974 when he had come from his village 65 miles west of here so that his sins could be forgiven.

Another hole a few feet from his yawned vacantly. The hermit living there had died three years ago.

"Yes, we were friends," the hermit said, looking at his palms. "I feel lonely now."

And yet there was another hermit, occupying a hole a few hundred feet away.

"Yes, we're friends, too," the hermit said. "Sometimes we talk. We talk about peace in the country, the harvest and about the afterlife."