AFTER TRAVELING overland with two best friends to fourteen countries in Africa and the Middle East, Lalibela in Ethiopia, stands out as one of the most fascinating places we visited. Home to eleven monolithic churches, which were all carved down into the earth out of a single block of red volcanic rock, Lalibela is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its churches are some of the greatest architectural achievements in the history of the world.

It is said that after seeing Jerusalem taken by the Muslims in 1187, King Lalibela, who ruled Ethiopia for 40 years, commissioned these churches to be built with the intention of having Lalibela serve as a new Jerusalem. They are still in use today, home to priests, monks, and worshipers, and serving as a religious sanctuary for pilgrims who come from all over the world.

This article was originally published on january 22nd, 2010.

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St. George's Church

St. George's Church is Lalibela's most famous church thanks to its unusual cross shape. Photo: Marc Veraart

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St. George's Church

St. George's Church is isolated from the other churches but it is connected to them by a network of trenches. Photo: Roberto Vallejol

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Lalibela cross

A priest holds a Lalibela cross. The cross is said to have been given by angels to King Lalibela.

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Young student priests

Student priests reading the holy book. Photo: Stefan Gara

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Ethiopian bible

A monk reads the Ethiopian Orthodox Bible, using a birr (Ethiopian monetary note) as a bookmark. Most of the priests and monks are kind enough to let you take their photograph, usually for a small donation.

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Lalibela worshiper

A worshiper takes a moment to pray. The vast majority of the population of Lalibela is Ethiopian Orthodox Christian.

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Traditional house

The traditional Lalibela dwellings are circular. They are called "tukuls". Photo: Evgeni Zotov

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Sunday liturgy in Lalibela

A priest gives the Sunday liturgy to about five hundred worshipers. The theme of the day in part: that despite the intrusion some feel from tourists, to respect all of the different nationalities of people that come to visit Lalibela, to treat them with kindness, and welcome them.

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Lalibela pilgrim

Visitors are allowed to attend certain Masses, although in some of the churches you need to be invited by a member of that specific church. Photo: Gusjer

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Ethiopian Orthodox monk

If you want to hike or ride a mule up the nearby mountains, or venture some distance outside of Lalibela, there are many other rock churches and monasteries to explore. Here, a monk poses for a picture in his mountaintop Ethiopian Orthodox monastery.

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Lalibela boy

This little boy in Ashetan Maryam monastery was selling hand-made hats. Photo: Alberto Martinez Subtil

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Gardian of the Bible

This Lalibela mountain monk is the gardian of the ancient hand-painted bible he is holding. Photo: Alberto Martinez Subtil

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Inside an Ethiopian home

While wandering the churches I was asked by a small boy, Chalalhew Megus, to come to his house for a coffee. I followed him to his small home, where I met his mother (pictured), grandmothers, and two sisters. Although we could not communicate more than a few words, for the next hour I enjoyed some of the best freshly ground coffee I have ever tasted.

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War victims, Ethiopia

After having coffee and popcorn, Chalalhew Megus wanted me to take a photograph of him holding a portrait of his father, who was killed in the Ethiopian-Eritrean war. To the right is his father's mother. It was a very powerful moment and one I'll never forget.

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