Miracles set in stone

The baths of the Queen of Sheba, rock churches carved by angels and the Blue Nile falls — Ute Junker finds herself unprepared for the wonders of Ethiopia.

IMAGINE this. You have never seen a picture of the Great Pyramid of Giza, nor has anyone ever told you about it. Then one morning, someone takes you for a short drive, and shows you this astonishing monument. How would you describe your reaction? Amazement? Disbelief? Gobsmacked? That's pretty much how I feel standing above the church of Bet Giyorgis at Lalibela.

Before we get to Lalibela, a dusty hamlet in the Ethiopian highlands, my guide explains we'll be visiting 11 churches carved out of the cliffs by the legendary King Lalibela. I'm expecting something similar to Petra, the famous city carved into cliffs in Jordan's desert. I couldn't be more wrong.

When you visit Bet Giyorgis - St George's church - you approach not from the side, but from above. The builders of this church didn't tunnel sideways into the rusty red rock face, they started where we were standing, then dug down an astonishing 15 metres to excavate a church out of the heart of the rock. To increase the degree of difficulty, they formed the church in the shape of a giant crucifix.

That was just the first step. Having carved out a crucifix-shaped chunk of rock, they did the exterior detailing - not only doors and windows but also a wide set of steps leading in, and even some decorative carving. And once they'd done all that, they still had to hollow out solid rock to create the church's interior, chiselling through the small openings to make room for worshippers to go inside.

Did I mention all this was done in the 12th century?

The cruciform Bet Giyorgis may be the most spectacular of Lalibela's churches, but each of these churches hewn from red volcanic stone has its own special appeal. One contains beautiful frescoes, another has a protective moat, several are linked by dark subterranean tunnels. One thing they share in common: they're practically devoid of tourists.

In two days of exploring the churches, I see just a handful of Westerners, not surprising, since tourism in Ethiopia is still in its infancy. Yet the churches receive a steady stream of visitors, locals coming to pray or - as I discover to my amazement - to be exorcised.

I'm standing outside one of the churches, listening to the story of how Bet Giyorgis came to be built. (Apparently a peeved St George appeared to King Lalibela in a dream, sitting on a white horse, clad in armour, demanding to know why the king had built 10 churches without dedicating any to St George. Lalibela promptly got to work on one final church, more splendid than all the rest.) My guide's explanation is being drowned out by a strange screeching and howling from inside the church. It sounds like a gang of teenage boys on a rampage. I ask my guide what's going on. "There's an exorcism taking place inside," he says casually.

"Can we go inside?" I ask breathlessly. "Of course," he replies, "there are some nice carvings I want to show you."

Truth be told, the exorcism is much more interesting than the carvings. A woman, all in white, is sitting on the ground, rocking in pain as the priest presses a large gold crucifix against different parts of her body.

Half a dozen members of her family, also dressed in white, sit nearby. The looks on their faces range from mild concern to mild boredom. Every so often, the woman screeches or screams or jabbers angrily. "What's happening?" I ask my guide. "Oh, that's just the demons being driven out," he explains.

Every day in Ethiopia brings a different wonder. In two weeks of travelling through its highlands, I discover the country has a remarkable history of which the world is largely unaware. We visit the ruins of the Temple of the Moon, built more than 2500 years ago. Older than Greece's Parthenon, the ancient stonemasons fitted the blocks together with such precision, a piece of paper won't slide into the joins.

We also visit the stelae field at Axum, where the largest obelisks in the world are found. One still reaches 24 metres into the sky; another, a staggering 33 metres long, lies broken on the ground. All the obelisks were carved from a single piece of stone, more proof of the ancient Ethiopians' skill at stone carving.

Right now, however, I'm still trying to comprehend the achievement of King Lalibela. According to legend, he built his 11 churches in just 25 years, with the help of a host of angels. Not a big believer in heavenly helpers, I'm trying to work out the resources required for a project this size. How many hundreds - no, thousands - of workers were involved? Who grew the food that fed the workers? Where were they housed? The logistics required are mind boggling.

I turn to my guide, Samson, for the details. How big was Lalibela's empire? How long did it last? And why did he build the churches?

"No one knows," Samson shrugs.

This is perhaps the strangest thing I hear the whole time I'm in Ethiopia. So far, Samson has excelled at explaining his country to me, giving me the facts and figures that help me make sense of what we're seeing. When I'm surprised at the distances we've covered, he puts it into context by explaining that Ethiopia is five times the size of Great Britain. When I marvel at the gorgeous birds we're seeing - brightly plumed fire finches, red bishops and eastern plantain eaters, among others - Samson explains Ethiopia's diverse habitats are home to almost 900 different species of bird, as well as almost 300 different mammals.

Then there's Ethiopia's complicated list of emperors, which stretches over two thousand years, from Menelik I, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, to the last emperor, Haile Selassie, who is worshipped as a god by Rastafarians.

At first it's hard to reconcile this cavalcade of natural and historical riches with this sleepy country where small children wait in fields of sorghum, corn and barley to ward off the birds, or chase excitedly down dusty roads when they see a car approaching. But in Ethiopia, you soon develop a sense of double vision, discerning the glory of the past beneath the unassuming present.

While the two-street town of Axum dozes in the heat of the afternoon, it's possible to explore the stone foundations of the palaces, temples and fortresses which, until 700 AD, glorified the might of an empire that extended across the Red Sea to Arabia, and traded with India and China.

Visitors head to nearby Yeha, Ethiopia's oldest city, to tour the ruins dating back to the 8th century BC. There are other treasures here, however, for those who take the time.

The priest on duty at the local church proudly shows us his holy books, which he tells us are 850 years old. The goat skin pages, bound in wooden covers, feature gloriously coloured illustrations and elegantly curling calligraphy.

On our way back from Yeha, Samson points out the dramatic mountains known as the Teeth of Adua. In 1896, King Menelik II defeated an invading Italian army here - a battle still celebrated by Ethiopians, who are proud to be the only African nation never colonised by Europeans.

Ethiopia's past glories are most visible at Gondar, one of the many former capital cities left behind by the country's peripatetic rulers. During the 17th century, Ethiopia's rulers created a series of magnificent palaces and beautiful gardens, the remains of which can still be seen in the 70,000-square-metre royal enclosure. The building designs incorporate a range of influences, from Indian and Portuguese to Moorish and Aksumite, that demonstrate the kingdom's international reach.

While the interiors have long since been stripped of the gilded Venetian mirrors and chairs, gold leaf, ivory and paintings described in contemporary records - Gondar was sacked by invading Sudanese forces in the 1880s - the scale of the buildings gives a sense of their grandeur. They include banqueting halls, kitchens, library, Turkish bath (the clothes hooks - cow horns stuck into the walls - are still in place) and even a lion house, where the emperors kept Abyssinian lions, the symbol of their reign.

In this deeply Christian country, however, it's not surprising that some of Gondar's most memorable buildings have religious significance. Debre Berhan Selassie church is one of the country's most magnificent, and one of the few buildings to survive the Sudanese invasion (according to legend, a swarm of bees drove off the invaders). Possibly the Sudanese thought it just too lovely to destroy. Every inch of the interior is decorated with riotously coloured frescoes celebrating scenes from the Bible, including some particularly vivid depictions of hell. The ceiling is covered with the faces of 104 unmistakably Ethiopian angels, each with a splendid mini-Afro.

Flanking the town's deserted main plaza, where cows graze on weeds, is Fasiladas' Bath. Like Cambodia's Tha Prom temple, the wall around the enclosure is picturesquely overgrown with tree roots, but unlike Tha Prohm, the building is still in use. Originally a small summer palace, reputedly built by King Failidas, it is now used to celebrate Timkat, the ceremony commemorating Jesus' baptism in the River Jordan. The palace's moat is filled with water which, at the culmination of the day-long festival, is sprayed over the assembled crowd.

The writer travelled courtesy of Cox & Kings.

Trip notes

Getting there

South African Airways flies from Sydney to Addis Ababa via Johannesburg. Fares start at $2657.64. flysaa.com.

Touring there

Cox & Kings' 12-day, 11-night Ethiopian Odyssey itinerary takes in highlights of the historic circuit, including Addis Ababa, Hawzien, Axum, Lalibela, Gondar and Bahar Dar. Guests can travel in small groups or on a private journey. Group prices start at $4535 a person, twin share, while private journeys start at $6202 a person, twin share. 1300 836 764, coxandkings.com.au.

Need to know

Ethiopia is still developing its tourism infrastructure, so while you'll have a memorable trip, don't expect all the creature comforts of home.

Accommodation If you're looking for luxury accommodation, you've come to the wrong place. While boutique hotels are beginning to spring up in destinations such as Lalibela and the Simien Mountains, accommodation tends towards the rustic. However, all the hotels we stayed at had satellite television and some offered free wi-fi.

Food All hotels serve Western cuisine — of varying standards — but it's worth eating in restaurants to explore Ethiopia's delicious cuisine. A typical meal consists of injera — a bread that, being slightly fermented, looks disturbingly like tripe — served with a variety of spicy meat and vegetable sauces. Your trip should also include at least one coffee ceremony, a tradition that celebrates Ethiopia's best-known export. It's also worth trying the country's beers and honey wine, another Ethiopian tradition.

Transport Most tours will include a mix of road trips and internal flights on Ethiopian Airlines, which has just become a Star Alliance member. While some major roads are in superb condition, expect a rough ride in remote areas.

What to pack Ethiopia's most interesting sights are well away from the big city, so your shopping opportunities will be limited. Pack extras of anything you think you might need as you're unlikely to find any on the way.

What to see in Ethiopia

The rock churches at Lalibela are just one of nine World Heritage sites in Ethiopia. Here are some other highlights.

1 - Axum One of the great powers of the world in AD400. Relics include giant obelisks, underground tombs and ruined palaces.

2 - Lake Tana Covering 35,000 square kilometres, the source of the Nile river has picturesque monasteries on 30 of its 37 islands. The Blue Nile Falls are nearby.

3 - Simien Mountains This spectacularly eroded mountain landscape is home to some of Ethiopia's most distinctive animals, including the gelada baboon and massive lammergeier, with a three-metre wingspan.

4 - Great Rift Valley Some of Ethiopia's most colourful tribes, including the Suri and the Hamar, can be found in this valley. Tribal traditions, from wearing lip plates to initiation ceremonies such as "jumping the bulls", are still practised.