LALIBELA, ETHIOPIA-It’s a darkness so complete, it feels like a physical thing. The guide’s bright scarf serves as my beacon, until it disappears into the deepest gloom imaginable, and I start to feel a bit claustrophobic as I follow him. All of the clichés apply, including the one about (not) seeing your hand in front of your face. I’ve never known the true meaning of that other one — about the light at the end of the tunnel — until we near the end of this 30-metre one, and emerge in a church courtyard. I ask the guide, Moges Melkamu, what people call that particular passage. “Oh, we just call it hell,” he says, lightly.
I’m in Lalibela, a small town cradled in the mountains of northern Ethiopia and home to 11 rock-hewn churches. Commissioned by King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela back in the 13th century, these places of worship had been created as a new Jerusalem for Ethiopian Orthodox pilgrims. Now recognized and protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, they continue to pull in people by the thousands from around the world, drawn to the biggest attraction in a country where tourism is on the rise.